How the NRFL plans to take rugby to mainstream America

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Rugby player performs outrageous pass with American football (0:16)

Former Australia international Quade Cooper throws the ball behind his back in a rather unique style. (0:16)

The latest attempt to bring the sport of rugby union to the American masses certainly isn't short on ambition.

The National Rugby Football League, which is at this stage slated for a spring 2022 kickoff, is pledging to bring a rugby experience to the United States the likes of which Americans have never seen, one that draws on the masses' love of the NFL and hopes to convert fans to the world's most played contact-tackle sport.

"We have never wavered from what we wanted to do," NRFL commissioner Mike Clements told ESPN from the fledgling league's headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota. "And our mission has always been to take rugby to greater America by utilizing everything that we have available to us, from outstanding athletes to infrastructure, stadia and fans that have a contact-tackle sport background and are basically addicted to it and also then looking at the stakeholders and so forth. We've never wavered from that.

"And when you travel the path, I would say that some people look at what we're doing with inspiration, some people look at what we're doing with intimidation, but we remain steadfast on our course to bring [rugby] to the top property that it truly can be and richly deserves to be."

Clements looks at rugby and sees a miscarriage of sporting justice.

How can a sport that boasts the third-biggest global event on the planet -- behind only the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup -- in the Rugby World Cup and is played in more than 120 countries not have any teams or franchises included in Forbes' Top 50 most valuable sports entities, particularly when more than half of those are from another contact-tackle sport, the NFL?

"One of our points that we always like to raise is the Forbes ranking of top sport properties. Currently rugby is not in there, and there is no excuse for it," Clements said.

"And so that when we see that over half of the top 50 most valuable sport franchises are coming out of the contact-tackle sport of American football of NFL, once the fans see this, once it's presented in that incredibly high-fashion way that we can do here in America, we feel that that will put rugby rightfully where it deserves to be.

"And what that will do will also raise the water table for the sport globally."

The NRFL's blueprint is to supercharge rugby by combining the game's best athletes -- think two-time World Rugby Player of the Year, New Zealand's Beauden Barrett, or current England captain Owen Farrell -- and then try to convert some American football athletes to the game as well.

Signing some of rugby's existing global superstars won't be without its challenges, but the NRFL's managing director, Steve Ryan, sees a blueprint in the Indian Premier League, the competition that changed cricket forever.

"From an international perspective, we're essentially creating the IPL of rugby," Ryan told ESPN. "Our vision is to put one of the best products on the pitch, and when you compare rugby to soccer or American football, all the best players tend to go to the English Premier League [in soccer]. It's by far the best league in terms of money, capital, fans, the whole thing. In rugby, the best players are kind of scattered across the board in [competitions]. Some are in France, now in Japan and other places. That presents a great opportunity for us again to create the IPL of the sport of rugby.

"And to do that, our salary cap will be competitive with the internationals [leagues]. We know, and when you look at the player welfare situation, we know we need to pay our players full-time. This is not semi-professional. That's what Americans expect. Whether you're a fan of football, baseball, basketball, whatever it is, the fans in the U.S. want to watch the best, so in order to do that, we want to create one of the best products in the sport."

Rugby in the United States remains a niche sport. The sport has been plagued by financial problems -- USA Rugby filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March -- and the country's PRO Rugby competition folded after one season in 2016.

There have, however, been positive signs for the game in the Major League Rugby (MLR) competition, which was into its third season and had grown to a 12-team league before it was canceled midway through the season this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

MLR exists on a far smaller salary cap ($500,000) than what the NRFL has planned, but it at least attracted former international stars Mathieu Bastareaud (France), Tendai Mtawarira (South Africa) and Ben Foden (England) to its ranks. Bastareaud has since returned to France, and one franchise, the Colorado Raptors, has withdrawn from the competition.

In explaining their withdrawal, the Raptors said MLR wasn't helping to develop American rugby players who could one day help the United States win the Rugby World Cup. There were too many overseas players propping up the league, the franchise said.

Winning the World Cup doesn't appear to be a goal for the NRFL or, therefore, a problem, as it is instead all about entertainment and giving fans of American football the body-on-body contact they crave during the NFL's offseason.

"Our intent at the NRFL is to create an invigorated commercial product that utilizes all the effective modern aspects of the game, yet retains the best historic features and at the same time closes the crossover gap for current American football athletes," Clements said.

"And then ultimately, with an emphasis on Americanization, what is the end? We create the best optics for the North American contact-sport fans. And we know what tastes good for the American fan base. We know what we have here by way of crossover fans during the summer months.

"Our games will be played April [to] July, and that is completely offseason in the NFL, so we're not interfering in their airspace, yet their fans want to see something in the offseason, and we can supply that."

The NRFL has partnered with NFL alumni and hopes to convert former American football athletes into rugby players, where possible.

If that seems unlikely, the examples of USA Rugby Sevens players Carlin Isles and Perry Baker provide some hope that the transition is possible, and Nate Ebner, who recently moved from the New England Patriots to the New York Giants in the NFL, also has a rugby background.

The NRFL wants to play the numbers game. Between the more than 800 athletes who get cut from NFL franchises every year and the thousands who stop playing the game altogether after college, there have to be a few rugby diamonds in the rough, right?

"One of the thesis when we started this journey was that, yes, we have this massive pool of these elite American football athletes, and we asked ourselves ... can they truly put down a football and pick up a rugby ball and become some of the best out there?" Ryan said. "Hence, we held eight combines, similar to NFL combines but rugby combines that were the first ever in the sport to be done, to really prove that thesis out. And when you look at it, it's just a numbers game.

"There are 864 athletes that get cut from the NFL every year. There's nothing wrong with these athletes. They're still 6-foot-5, 250 pounds. They just haven't been aware of the sport of rugby. And we know not everyone is going to convert. We know it takes time for certain positions to become some of the best out there, but that 864 does not even include the thousands of American football athletes that don't even attempt to make the NFL.

"And the great thing about the sport of rugby is that it lends itself to all body types. And when you look at the athletes of football, they can adjust to the sport of rugby. Especially with certain tweaks to 'Americanize' it, they can assimilate to the sport of rugby, we feel, relatively quickly and can have that success in combination with getting some of the best rugby talent internationally."

The NRFL was actually created in 2014, but realizing that it was rushing to market, the league put its plans on hold. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it might have popped its head up again at exactly the right time.

Rugby competitions across the globe are experiencing financial difficulties, and so too are individual clubs, club owners and national unions.

Last week, for example, Rugby Australia was handed a $[Aus]14.2 million loan by World Rugby amid the Union's financial struggles, and on Monday, three players from professional franchise Queensland Reds were stood down after they failed to agree to the same sweeping pay cuts that Australia's other 189 professional players had.

It is generally conceded that there will be a salary correction across the game, creating an environment in which players might just have their interest tweaked by a fledgling competition that has money to spend.

The NRFL has to first bring in investors and then start putting in place the plans that will frame the competition, from teams, host cities and stadia, before it can try to sell itself to some prospective players.

"This is why we have the Founders Group," Clements said. "And when you look at the way the major leagues started here -- the big leagues, if you will -- it's always a group of people that have come together and said, 'Let's do this.'

"So the Founders Group is that. It's an entity that allows individuals to come in and purchase a slice of eight founding teams without having the obligation to operate them."

Ryan added a little more clarity.

"We're starting with eight cities across the U.S. Ultimately, as we expand, that ramps up to the 30-plus markets [teams], and we've identified a short list of cities based on a number of factors, from stadia to rugby and football population to media and others. Out of that shortlist, we will ultimately announce eight markets, such as Boston, New York, Atlanta and so forth, but we'll be making those announcements in the near future.

"We've been steadfast in our mission to put the best product on the field, and in order to do that, you have to look at what has failed and what has been successful in start-up leagues. And admittedly, the majority have failed, not only in the rugby space but across every sport.

"Secondly, for the product on the pitch, knowing what we want to accomplish, we just don't want to put a few guys on the pitch and give them a few bucks for it. We know that's [not] good enough. You need enough time to have that NRFL level of talent on the pitch, and that just takes time.

"So we're about two years out [from kickoff], and we'll be continuing to make announcements and make things public from a fan perspective, from a player perspective, from a coach and stadium and market perspective. And those are exciting conversations that we can't wait to have moving forward."