When former NRL CEO Todd Greenberg was in England for February's World Club Challenge he discussed growing the game in North America with Toronto Wolfpack owner David Argyle.
A key initiative was going to be the Kangaroos playing a Wolfpack team boosted by stars from other Super League clubs at Toronto's BMO Stadium on October 24, while the pair also spoke about a content-sharing arrangement that would benefit both organisations.
With the NRL grand final now re-scheduled for October 25, the historical match in Canada is off but the resumption of the Telstra Premiership next week has provided another opportunity for the NRL in North America and around the world.
Interim NRL CEO Andrew Abdo said on Monday: "We believe rugby league is a great entertainment product – it is fast, unpredictable and intense.
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"We are excited about the opportunity to play again on May 28 and to share the game with the rest of the world. We are working with all our partners to make sure the game is in front of as many sport-starved fans in the world as possible.”
As the first collision sport to resume following coronavirus-forced shutdowns, the NRL is attracting unprecedented global interest, with Sky Sports UK announcing within hours of the draw being released last Friday that they would broadcast all eight matches live each week.
France's BeIN Sports has also increased its coverage to four live NRL matches per round, while ESPN executive vice-president of programming Burke Magnus said the network was positioning itself to provide live content from international competitions that resumed before US sports.
We are excited about the opportunity ... share the game with the rest of the worldInterim NRL CEO Andrew Abdo
"There is clearly a thirst for live games and it may provide a unique opportunity to introduce fans to events or leagues that may not have had as much exposure here," Magnus said.
Winning Starts Monday also contacted a number of people in North America and Europe with an understanding or involvement in rugby league and broadcasting to ask about the level of interest in the NRL's resumption.
They included Argyle, American National Rugby League founder David Niu, French broadcaster and former international Louis Bonnery, BBC commentator Dave Woods and Red Star Belgrade part-owner Colin Kleyweg.
"Now is the time, because of the dearth of live sport, for the NRL to present rugby league to North America," Argyle said.
Niu, a former St George halfback who has been living in the US since 1993, said: "The NRL has a free swing at potentially rugby league's greatest opportunity to reach an immense audience here in North America".
With no sport being played in France or Britain, Bonnery and Woods said there was interest in how the NRL was leading the way.
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"These will be the only rugby [league or union] matches that will exist in the world, which can only arouse great curiosity and meet the expectations of supporters who have been frustrated for several weeks now by the lack of play," Bonnery said.
Woods added: "Maybe if football doesn't get back because of internal squabbles and rugby league can there would be a real opportunity for rugby league to capture a new market."
Kleyweg said efforts were being made to generate greater exposure for the NRL in Serbia, where the local competition is set to resume on June 6.
Unlike England and France, rugby league doesn’t have a long history in Serbia and the game faces the same obstacles in North America but the Wolfpack are helping to change that.
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Huge opportunity in North America
The Wolfpack's stunning recruitment of Sonny Bill Williams last November reached a potential audience of 765 million people through coverage by the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, Toronto Sun and another 80 media outlets around the world.
Reports of a possible fight between Williams and Mike Tyson generated even more publicity for the four-year-old club among a new audience in the United States of whom many were not previously aware of the Wolfpack or rugby league.
The Wolfpack have relationships with media outlets and the owners of sports teams in most of the major competitions in North America.
"There are two markets in the world of sport that you need to have a big position in if you want to become truly global - North America for money and China for numbers," Argyle said.
"The reason that Todd [Greenberg] and I were interested in a relationship between the NRL and Wolfpack before COVID-19 is that we saw the opportunity, even when there were other sporting options out there. Now there is an even greater opportunity."
Niu said there was an unprecedented opportunity for the NRL to be "front and centre" while all the other major US sporting competitions, like NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL, are suspended or yet to commence their season.
"What is the likelihood of that ever happening again in this marketplace," he said.
"The other major sports that would be playing right now - NBA, MLB, and NHL - are still working out what they are going to do. It is unlikely they will do anything, if at all, by at least July 1.
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"The likes of Fox, ESPN and potentially the major networks, either on their flagship channels or on their regional stations or digital platforms will never be more open to live or delayed sports content, especially for a world-class competition like the NRL.
"If the NRL is available here from the end of May through the month of June - with little to no competition - it may just be a simple solution to a complex problem rugby league and other sports have been looking to solve for in North America for decades."
Chance to build in Europe
The NRL already has a loyal following in Britain and France but Bonnery said interest had increased as chairman Peter V'landys led attempts to restart the competition.
"Catalan Dragons, Toulouse XIII and the French Championship are stopped and for purely French competitions the season is over," Bonnery said.
"The crucial point of the news remains the recovery of the NRL on May 28 which is broadcast on the TV channel BeIN Sports in France. Subscribers regretted that the Super League was no longer broadcast, but the loyal supporters of the NRL, [who are] numerous, remained.
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"With nothing left on the fields and the stadiums empty, we carefully follow the battles waged both against the virus but also those to resume the game."
Woods said England had been hit hard by the coronavirus but there was still a strong appetite for sport on television and rugby league had more than held its own in a market dominated by soccer.
"There’s a lot of nostalgia shows going out at the minute, not the least the re-runs of old sporting events on network free-to-air channels like BBC1 and ITV, and the figures they are getting are very healthy," Woods said.
"We ran a classic Challenge Cup show on BBC1 a few weeks ago – five finals from five decades – and it peaked at 1.4 million viewers, with an average of 900,000. A football World Cup classics show followed us immediately on BBC1 and peaked at 900,000, with an average of 800,000."
Kleyweg said there was interest in the NRL in Europe but the timing of live matches created obstacles.
"The majority of the matches are early morning," he said.
"This means the networks aren’t as excited … because mornings tend to be their worst ratings, particularly when the sport doesn't have much heritage."
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.