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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Henry Belot

NRL seeking to cash in on ‘absolute revolution’ in online sports gambling in US

Elevated view of illuminated cityscape of Las Vegas
NRL executives are in negotiations over hosting two round one games in Las Vegas in a bid to tap into the US online sports gambling industry. Photograph: RooM the Agency/Alamy

The NRL is on the cusp of cementing a long-term strategy to cash in on “an absolute revolution” in online sports betting in the US, which could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcast fees, sponsorship and gambling revenue.

NRL executives are hoping to host two round one games in Las Vegas next year and will travel to the gambling hub next month to continue negotiations and planning with multiple stakeholders before any formal announcement.

The Australian Rugby League Commission chair, Peter V’landys, has been upfront about wanting access to the booming US sports betting market since he took over the job in 2019, one year after the US supreme court overturned a federal ban on the industry.

“Like him or loathe him, V’Landys is all about the dollar,” said Colin Smith, of advisory firm Global Media and Sports.

Smith said the US was experiencing “an absolute revolution” in sports betting with the legal market now worth about US$20bn (A$30bn) a year, despite being only five years old. He said it was smart business for the NRL to establish a presence in the US.

“I can’t say exactly how they’ll sign the deal, but they’ll get a share of the sports betting and have exclusivity options with broadcasters and the gambling companies,” Smith said. “They could also get exclusive sponsorships as well.”

“This is really long-term thinking. Americans might be interested in following the NRL and having more games over there. The closest thing to the NFL would be the NRL.”

The overseas expansion is supported by many of Australia’s biggest sports gambling companies, although they would not benefit directly. International bets cannot be placed with Australian bookmakers and different time zones may reduce the volume of bets.

Jason Bourne, a professor at the Miami University Institute on Responsible Gaming, said the NRL’s primary motivation was likely the “very lucrative television, advertising and sponsorship markets”.

Peter V’landys
Australian Rugby League Commission chair Peter V’landys. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

“While legal sport gambling is relatively new to the US, it is a very large and fast-growing market in the tens of billions of [US] dollars,” Bourne said.

The chief investment officer at PAC Capital, Clayton Larcombe, which invests in the esports and gaming sectors, said many US gambling companies were spending big money on sponsorships and would be keen to associate themselves with Australian leagues.

“A lot of the big gambling companies in the US are finding it very hard to get a gambling licence in Australia, which is a very lucrative gambling nation,” Larcombe said. “Imagine if they could get their brand on one of our teams? It’s very lucrative.”

The director of advocacy group Stop Predatory Gambling & Campaign for Gambling-Free Kids, Les Bernal, based in Washington DC, agreed the NRL could make money off gambling in the US.

“One way the NRL would extract profits from the gambling losses of the American people is the sale of the NRL’s statistics from their games to the predatory gambling operators,” Bernal said.

“Access to these game statistics allows the gambling operators to push more extreme and more frequent kinds of wagers, ultimately leading to citizens losing even more of their personal wealth.”

But Bernal did not think US gambling companies would partner with the NRL as a step towards establishing a presence in the Australian market.

“In the eyes of the gambling operators’ customer acquisition strategy, it’s a lot cheaper at this moment to turn citizens in the US into addicted gamblers, the primary source of profits for the gambling industry, because America is an ‘under served’ market,” Bernal said.

The NRL makes tens of millions of dollars in gambling revenue each year, and at the parliamentary inquiry into online gambling it appeared to downplay community concerns about the number of wagering ads associated with the sport.

The NRL was contacted for comment.

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