By JIM POWERS
EARLIER this month I was in Coogee watching the NRL grand final at an outdoor hotel bar function hosted by a local microbrewery (Lost Boys Brewing, terrific stuff).
In line for more beer another attendee of this party heard my American accent and asked me about the 2025 World Cup as well as rumours of a New York team. My answer to both was the same, “I’m hopeful but there’s a lot of ways it could go wrong.”
Playing at Red Bull Arena in a sport with zero profile in the New York metro area is one of the ways I was talking about. It’s too big, it’s too far from the city, it’s a bad place to start.
The first thing you need to know about New York City sports is the psychic barrier that exists between the city of New York and the state of New Jersey. New Yorkers mock those who come in from New Jersey as “bridge and tunnel” people (as in that’s how they got to the city).This is similar to Sydneysiders and crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
City dwellers go two places in New Jersey. One of them is the “Jersey shore”- the famous beaches of southern New Jersey. The other is East Rutherford, where the region’s two NFL teams play and where megastar headliner concerts are held. Both locations have been destinations for decades. The former for about a hundred years, the latter for 41 (since the Giants left the city in 1976, followed by the Jets in ‘82).
Neither trip is taken without plenty of complaining. The New Jersey Turnpike, New Jersey drivers, the swamps (East Rutherford is in The Meadowlands, a wetland) and most of all the smell. The “Jersey smell” comes from northern New Jersey’s history of chemical treatment plants. George Carlin (among other New York comics) told an old ribald joke about it that was printed on tourist t-shirts. Google it.
Despite having a $150 million dollar jewel of a stadium Harrison, NJ has not entered that lofty pantheon of places New Yorkers will deign to travel to from their beloved city into the state they distain. “The Red Bulls traditionally have experienced attendance issues. Despite playing in the metro area in arguably the best stadium in the league, they have struggled to fill the place,” according to one of the deans of local soccer writers, Newsday’s Michael Lewis. “I believe two-thirds of the Red Bulls’ crowds came from New Jersey, the rest from New York, Connecticut and even Pennsylvania.”
The Giants and Jets get a pass not afforded the Red Bulls for a few reasons. Both NFL teams played in the city for a combined 80-some odd years. Tradition passed down from parents to children helped coax the famously averse-to-Jersey fans to cross the Hudson. They play in the nation’s biggest sports league who’s regular season is only 16 games long. The maximum number of play-off games a team could play is four (including the Super Bowl). The vast majority of both teams’ games are on free-to-air TV channels. None of these advantages exist for the Red Bulls or will exist for New York Rugby League in Harrison.
It also isn’t precisely simple to get to either. Mark Fishkin, host of the long-running “Seein’ Red” podcast laid it out for me. “Harrison, NJ, home of Red Bull Arena, can be a bit challenging to get in and out of. Driving to and from the arena can difficult, as one four-lane road is the major artery to the stadium. Parking can be difficult for the uninitiated.”
“But the expats,” you think, “the expats will come out.”
Let me pass on something I’ve learned in 23 years of following another niche sport in America, namely soccer. You do not rely on the expats. They will come out in the beginning. They will in all likelihood not come back too often, if at all. If half of the expats from soccer-loving nations came to MLS games, it would rival the NFL in attendance.
Who besides those expats are there? I asked Matthew Hall, a New York based Australian writer whose byline appears in the Guardian, Fox Sports and the Sydney Morning Herald.
“The other market is people new to rugby league which, if the existing market is almost non-existent, is crucial to attract if the team is to be sustainable, even in the short term. The question then becomes why would people who know nothing about rugby league be interested in seeing a live game. Once that is answered, the next question is why would they travel from New York to New Jersey out of curiosity, especially when there are so many things in New York City to be curious about. It’s not like there’s nothing else to do with their time and money. What is the compelling reason to travel to New Jersey from New York City?”
“But you’re talking about soccer,” you say, “rugby league is different.”
Okay, but you would assume rugby union would also be different. When London Irish came to Red Bull Arena in 2016 (near St. Patrick’s Day no less) they expected the expats to come out in droves. They played Saracens in a full-scale regular season Premiership game, not an exhibition. Attendance was officially (and generously) counted at over 14,000. It did not look like a single soul over 8,000 (again being generous).It’s also a matter of record that the promoter gave away tickets to boot. This year the game was moved to another MLS venue- the Philadelphia Union’s Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, a Philadelphia suburb. They drew a little over 6,000 with AEG (one of the world’s biggest sports entertainment companies) as the promoter.
“Yeah but rugby union is boring and rugby league is exciting,” you say.
This presupposes your average American knows there are two forms of rugby. That’s incorrect. To most of us, “rugby” is a vague concept that’s kind of like football with no helmets. The intricacies of what happened at a hotel in Huddersfield in 1895 might as well be the outcome of the Battle of Culloden to us.
“The investors can’t be wrong,” you retort, “they wouldn’t invest if they thought it wasn’t a good idea.”
Investors are wrong all the time. Here’s an idea for you. Americans love football (our football). Why not start a league and fill in the gaps in the year the NFL leaves open? License to print money right? After you look up the Carlin joke please look up the XFL, the United Football League, Major League Football, and the Fall Experimental Football League. They never caught on, certainly not in New York, in the biggest spectator sport this country has.
This proposed team has to play in the five boroughs to have a fighting chance. Where, I don’t know. My first thought is perhaps a ground-share with the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team and New York Cosmos soccer team at MCU Park on Coney Island in Brooklyn. The stadium isn’t as big as Red Bull Arena, but it is both in the city and a short walk from a subway, not a commuter rail, station. New Yorkers flock to Coney in their thousands in the summer. Biff and beer at the beach, anybody?