Can Russell Crowe take rugby league to Las Vegas?

Actor and co-owner of South Sydney Rabbitohs Russell Crowe is interviewed by the BBC prior to the World Club Challenge match between St Helens and South Sydney Rabbitohs at Langtree Park on 22 February 2015 in St Helens, England. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Crowe has set his sights on bringing rugby league to Las Vegas

Rugby league has always played the poor cousin to more glamorous and better financed codes such as soccer on the international stage. But one man hopes to change all that.

Did you hear the one about the Hollywood star and the casino boss who showcased a bunch of one-time losers in Las Vegas and hit the jackpot?

It's not a joke. If Oscar winner Russell Crowe succeeds, Australia's South Sydney Rabbitohs, the premiership-winning team he part-owns, will become a global brand.

It doesn't hurt that he has the backing of his billionaire business friend James Packer, who owns casinos around the world.

Considering how far Crowe has already taken the team - facing financial ruin, it was ousted from Australia's National Rugby League (NRL) in 2000 - the odds of him succeeding in this global push are better than average.

Vegas gamble

Crowe, star of box office hits such as Gladiator, outlined his grand plan for the team just before it became the best rugby league club in the world by winning the World Club Series in a one-off match against top English side St Helens in late February.

The New Zealand-born, Australian-trained actor wants the top four teams from the two best rugby league competitions in the world, Australia and England, to develop the game internationally by playing a condensed competition in Las Vegas to decide who's number one.

"If everyone, the fans of those top four, meets in the middle between Australia and England in Vegas, and it's all on and it's blood on the line, then it's really exciting," Crowe told BBC Sport.

"It is another TV product we can sell and it will also give the clubs another revenue source."

Crowe has the ear of the NRL and ESL (English Super League) and his plan has the backing of the top clubs and sport marketers, who say his celebrity power and the Rabbitohs' success and back-story are a winning combination.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Rabbitohs won the World Club Series in February against England's St Helens

Chicago-based Noah Gold, who has managed public relations and marketing programmes for top-tier global sporting clients including the National Football League's Super Bowl, says Crowe has the power and the product to succeed in the US.

"With Crowe's star power there's ample opportunity for promotion in and around Hollywood," says Mr Gold, now senior manager for communications at sports drinks manufacturer Gatorade.

"Additionally, sports aficionados have proven they will travel long distances to see their favourite players and Vegas is an enticing destination," he says.

"American fans are willing to pay a premium for a top-notch on-field product. From international soccer events to boxing to American football, fans have demonstrated this in the US."

Gary Hetherington, chief executive of Leeds Rhinos, the best supported club in the ESL and the most successful in the Super League era, also thinks Crowe can help develop a US following for league.

He says the film star's presence at an exhibition match between Souths and Leeds in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2008 attracted 12,000 spectators.

"Our Super League has a new TV deal with Sky Sports and the expansion of the game is something the broadcaster supports," Mr Hetherington says. The deal is believed to be worth £200m ($297m, A$388m) and to run until 2021.

"The good crowds and good TV audience for the World Club Series-style event in England in February... has shown that there is a value to offering the game to other cities, in North America or elsewhere."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Crowe helped to rescue the South Sydney Rabbitohs from financial ruin

Crowe's team's march to redemption is part of the package. Founded in 1908 in the inner Sydney working class suburb of Redfern, Souths got their Rabbitohs name from the locals who sold skinned rabbits door-to-door to make a living.

The team won 20 premierships between 1908 and 1971, but by 1990 it was at the bottom of the league. In 2000, it was kicked out of the competition.

The team fought for two years in court to be readmitted but was still broke and playing badly when Crowe - a supporter since he was a boy - invested in the club.

Last year, the team completed its return by winning its first premiership in 43 years and posting a net profit of about A$2m.

The club is now owned 75% by Crowe and Mr Packer, who owns casinos in Australia, the UK, the Philippines and Macau as well as film production business RatPac Entertainment. The other 25% is owned by the club's 33,000 members.

Souths' chairman Nick Pappas, a solicitor who was part of the legal battle against the NRL, is a strong supporter of Crowe's plan, which he says is in the early stages of discussions with the NRL and clubs.

Mr Pappas says Souths' global potential was on display at the World Club Series, where he met a group of 20 German fans wearing Rabbitohs merchandise.

"Like me, Russell believes [rugby league football] is the greatest spectator sport in the world. It is the ultimate gladiatorial sport, combining both the physical dimension and the skill factor. We think it deserves a much bigger audience."

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