British Rugby League Plans to Add a New York Team

There is Oldham and Whitehaven and Workington Town. There are the West Wales Raiders, the North Wales Crusaders and the Keighley Cougars.

And joining them in the third division of Britain’s rugby league as soon as next year could be … New York City.

British rugby league clubs, who accepted a Canadian team in 2017, on Thursday voted to approve new teams in New York and Ottawa beginning in 2020. A final decision by the league on their admission will come in the next few weeks; the league first plans to take a closer look at the financial strength of the new teams. (With time short, the league said it might decide to delay the teams’ entry for a year.)

The New York team, as yet without a nickname, would play its games at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. It would follow in the footsteps of Toronto, which joined League One, the third tier of British rugby, in 2017.

The Toronto team, the Wolfpack, has been a success on the field, rolling through League One and earning promotion in its first year. Last year, it narrowly missed another promotion that would have sent it to the top level of rugby league, and it leads the second tier this year. Last season, the Wolfpack regularly drew crowds of as many as 6,000 fans in a league where the British team average attendance is closer to 2,500.

New York and Ottawa also would have the opportunity to climb up the league pyramid if they perform well, raising the possibility — or at least the odds — of top-flight British rugby league, or even a British rugby championship, coming to North America.

New York’s ownership group is led by Ricky Wilby, a Briton most recently involved with the Catalans Dragons, a French team.

The new New York team will be play rugby league, a version of the sport that may be less familiar to Americans than rugby union, the game generally played in American colleges and featured in the quadrennial Rugby World Cup.

Rugby league is a faster, more free-flowing game, with 13 players on a side rather than the 15-player teams used in rugby union, and rules that encourage tries (the rugby equivalent of touchdowns) rather than kicking. The rules also mandate that the ball be turned over to the other team after six tackles, a format similar to the downs of American football.

“Rugby league is very similar to the N.F.L.,” Wilby said. “It’s a continuous version of American football.”

In order to join a British league, New York and Ottawa have agreed to help finance the travel costs of teams visiting from Britain, as Toronto has done, probably through sponsorship. This is especially necessary because League One is decidedly small-time, with attendances of just a few hundred people common at some league matches.

The British rugby league season runs from February to October, but because of weather, Toronto always starts its season on the road, delaying its first home game until late April. The league expects New York and Ottawa to have a similar, if less restricted, schedule.

“In February it’s a little bit cold,” Wilby said. “We could just about get away with playing in late February or March.”

He said that unlike Toronto’s team, the New York club would be based in North America despite playing in a British league.

“Toronto is based primarily in the U.K. and comes to Toronto for their games,” he said. “We plan to be based in the city. We can be a part of city life.”

The New York team will include British players, but Wilby said he expected to have a number of Americans as well.

“We realize we’ve got a responsibility to the U.S.A. national team,” he said. “Our intention is to hold combines to look for Americans. We want to create some rugby league players; there’s a massive talent pool out there. We’ve also talked to current U.S. national team players, and they are excited.”

Unlike rugby union players, who tend to play fixed positions with fixed roles, rugby league positions are more flexible. As a result, Wilby said, “It’s a lot easier to turn a rugby union player into a rugby league player.”

In an increasingly internationalized sports world, leagues with a presence on multiple continents could be the future. For years, there has been talk of expanding American leagues, including the N.F.L., into Europe, and top European soccer leagues and teams now actively market themselves to American audiences. But while teams like Bayern Munich and leagues like Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga have permanent offices in New York, the idea of playing league games in other countries continues to draw opposition whenever it is proposed.

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