Why UFC boss is all in on league’s Las Vegas venture

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One of the heavy hitters in US sport has praised the NRL for its Las Vegas strategy, saying the use of Sin City as a launching pad will “turbocharge” its entry into the American market.

Lawrence Epstein is Dana White’s right-hand man at the UFC and fronted the NRL’s official Las Vegas launch. It’s a sign the UFC, where Epstein is the chief operating officer, is very serious about its partnership with the NRL, which was announced on Thursday (AEDT).

“Las Vegas was crucial for our sport, and the NRL are very smart in using that as their launching pad,” Epstein said. “There is no question Las Vegas can turbocharge your entry into the sports market. They are doing this the right way.”

The biggest thing I have learnt from my week in Las Vegas is how strategic the NRL has been in its approach to marketing and promoting its season-opening doubler-header in March.

Given the constant sniping from some factions about investing in a game in Las Vegas, the NRL has been conscious not to waste money. That even extends to NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo knocking back an $80 vehicle to transport us to a dinner. He decided we should catch a cab together instead, which came in at $30. It’s the little things.

The NRL watched with interest Formula 1’s approach last month, when that sport held its first grand prix on the Vegas strip, and took significant knowledge from what was an at-times troubled start.

The UFC’s chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein.Credit: Getty

There is so much noise already in Vegas, it is almost impossible to make your own and be heard. Some estimate F1 spent $10 million on its launch. It will be a couple of years of pain for that sport, and it has been riding high.

The NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders rolled out the red carpet for the NRL. They didn’t have to do it, but it is testament to the respect the Raiders have for the sport and what it is trying to achieve. Their president even took time to mingle with NRL players Aaron Woods, Campbell Graham, Spencer Leniu and Billy Walters in a corporate box.

“It’s the grit of rugby league and its continuing flow that will appeal to our fans,” Raiders boss Sandra Douglass Morgan said.

The UFC took it a step further by including a dedicated NRL media event in its fight week program. The UFC and NFL were genuinely excited about having the NRL in their city and the opportunity to engage with their audience.

Aaron Woods, Campbell Graham, Spencer Leniu and Billy Walters.Credit: Getty

There is no question the NRL has a lot of work to do to compete with other sports in Las Vegas. It most likely never will, but it doesn’t want to compete, it wants to grow, and the NRL believes NFL and UFC fans are the most likely to adopt rugby league. That is smart. It’s not blowing cash and, if it works, there is a real chance the NRL will find a permanent home in Las Vegas.

A blast with Cannon

Among the many celebrity encounters for the players in the US, the most significant for Rabbitoh Campbell Graham was at a Utah Jazz game. He was on the court with the NBA players, but he was also visited by Australian billionaire businessman Mike Cannon-Brookes. Cannon-Brookes is a part-owner of the Jazz and the Rabbitohs.

Mike Cannon-Brookes and Campbell Graham.

Another highlight was Woods and Walters doing a shoot with former NFL star Rob Gronkowski, who was Tom Brady’s long-time go-to man at the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Clout of the Woods

Aaron Woods has seen the criticism of his role as one of the faces of the NRL’s Vegas venture and told those who have been bagging him to keep the comments coming.

Woods has been working hard to carve out a post-footy career in the media to ease the letdown that comes with retirement.

“A lot of players struggle after footy, and I’m a footy head so I know I’ve got to get myself in a position to do that, and talking about footy is something I want to do,” he said.

Aaron Woods with an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas.Credit: Getty

The NRL seized on that and grabbed him to talk up rugby league in America.

“I know people have been saying I’m washed up or a has-been and why should I be there selling the game?” he said.

“They can say whatever they like as long as it’s aimed at me not my family. I’ve been on the end of far worse. I was angry at everyone … when I left the Tigers [in 2017]. That was a difficult time, but it taught me that everyone can have an opinion and you just need to wear it and only listen to those you value.”

Woods did a very capable job filling in for Hollywood stars Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman. He went above and beyond. As did the other players.

Trouble lurking

While the NRL is not being foolish with its spending on the Vegas venture, one cost it should not skimp on is shipping integrity unit boss Jason King over to the US, just in case. And it’s not necessarily for the players. It’s because the NRL could find itself in a tough situation that is not necessarily its fault.

There are shadowy figures not far from the bright lights who could take advantage of less-experienced NRL players. In one car ride, this columnist was told by a driver where you can pretty much find anything you want. Vegas is that kind of place.

That’s why Manly have their own experienced security man on board, and other clubs are doing the same. No one wants trouble, but post-game it will be hard not to allow the players to have a night out. And trouble is easily found.

Strip tips: Advice and observations from Vegas

Farewell 2023: A wonderful ride for some, a train wreck for others

It’s been a fun year and this is my last column until February. Here’s a look at the year that was and what is sure to be another bumper year in 2024.

Biggest talking points
Nathan Cleary’s 17 minutes in the grand final was from another world. It was Andrew Johns and Johnathan Thurston all rolled up into one. What Cleary did with his side trailing by 16 points and ready to be rolled out of the grand final will not be topped for years to come.

Another never-seen-before performance was delivered by Ben Hunt. This time it was off the field, however. Never has a club captain asked for an immediate release during the season and in the middle of an Origin series. But that reflected the dismay and dissatisfaction Hunt was feeling at the Dragons. Hunt had carried the Dragons for 18 months and his frustration was understandable. How he goes under new coach Shane Flanagan will be one of the stories of 2024.

Sam Burgess’ exit from South Sydney was stunning and sad. A club legend leaving after being so aggrieved by what he felt was preferential treatment for star players was disappointing. The demise of Wests Tigers’ board and CEO was long overdue. No more Lee Hagipantelis and no more Justin Pascoe (CEO). The overhaul of the club had a massive impact, and you feel there will be more change to come.

The end of Brad Fittler as coach of NSW was pushed by sections of the media, and they got their way. Part of Fittler’s passion for NSW was always the pathways and helping football around the state. Once that was taken away, there was no point of him continuing. The Bulldogs’ signing spree was one of the stories of the year, and will be one of the stories of next year. The turnover of players is almost unheard of for a modern rugby league team. No one can question that the squad is much better than last year and will continue to improve and evolve.

Stories to watch
The team under most pressure will be Souths after their collapse at the back end of the year. Clearly something was not right as the Rabbitohs became the first team in the NRL era to lead the competition after 11 rounds and not make the top eight. They won just four of their final 13 matches. They made significant changes all around coach Jason Demetriou in a show of faith.

The rebirth of Flanagan at the Dragons is interesting in every way. He deserves the opportunity to show he has learnt from his mistakes, after he was banned twice by the NRL. He can’t afford a single slip-up.

Benji Marshall has lost his support base at management and football level. He’s very much a rookie coach, but he was one of the smartest footballers in the game and needs to translate that knowledge to his young playing group.

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