LAS VEGAS — Walk down the iconic Vegas Strip this week, and you’ll see more than a few unfamiliar sights and sounds.  

Australia’s NRL rugby league competition is in town, meaning Sin City is hosting quite a few visitors with Aussie accents, wearing colorful jerseys not instantly recognizable to American sports lovers. 

It takes a lot to make a splash in this 24/7 pocket of the Mojave desert, but the NRL seems to be managing it, with countless billboards promoting its pair of regular-season games at Allegiant Stadium on Saturday (airing on FOX at 9:30 p.m. ET and 11:30 p.m. ET). That is combined with the simple fact that more than 15,000 rugby league diehards love their sport enough to have jetted 7,700 miles from Down Under. 

NRL CEO Andrew Abdo insisted that despite better-than-expected ticket sales approaching 40,000 for Saturday’s clashes between Manly Warringah Sea Eagles and South Sydney Rabbitohs, followed by Brisbane Broncos against Sydney Roosters, the overall success of the project won’t be solely determined by the events of this weekend. 

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“The plan is to gain fans over a number of years, instead of just judging it off these games,” Abdo told me via telephone. “It is phenomenal that we have so many traveling fans, and we believe we have the most passionate supporters in the world. 

“By bringing real games here — this is not an exhibition — we hope that our new American fans will stick with us through the year, keep enjoying our product and come back again next year.” 

The NRL has a deal in place to begin its season with two Las Vegas games every year between now and 2028. 

Coming overseas is a hugely significant step for the NRL and the sport of rugby, which is played by 13 athletes per team and where the action flows constantly — with the ball in play for an average of 56 minutes during each 80-minute game. 

Not to be confused with rugby union, the 15-a-side format played at the NCAA level, NRL claims to be Australia’s most popular television sport, and its leading players are major celebrities in their homeland. 

While venturing to American soil is a bold move, it is not unprecedented. The NFL and other North American sports have consistently taken games to various international destinations for years and have been expanding their footprint across the world as each year passes.

However, the NRL has a proud history of implementing enterprising initiatives, some of which would be truly fascinating if they were ever adopted in these parts. 

In 2019, the NRL launched “Magic Round,” a week of games where every match takes place in a single city, at one stadium. Combined with a week-long series of fan-themed events, much like the Super Bowl, it is one of the most popular periods on the Australian sporting calendar. 

Players from the Gold Coast Titans and Brisbane Broncos kick the ball around with young NRL fans during the 2021 Magic Round Launch at Bougainvillea House in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

“Magic Round is all about our fans and giving something back to them,” Abdo added. “We are always thinking about how people like to consume our game, and how can we capture their imagination and compete for their time.” 

It is difficult to imagine a Magic Round working in the NFL, with considering the logistical obstacles. However, if applied to the NBA — particularly in conjunction with the In-Season Tournament — there are some intriguing possibilities. 

Another unique aspect of rugby league which has become a huge part of Australian culture, is the annual State of Origin series. During this series, players briefly take a break from club action to represent the state where they grew up, either New South Wales or Queensland. 

“State of Origin is a sports rivalry more intense than I’ve seen anywhere in the world,” Abdo added. “Regardless of what club they play for, in the middle of the season, they remove themselves from their club to represent the state where they learned to play football.  

“It is a rivalry that transcends the game, businesses and politicians get involved, the banter is incredible. It matters so much to the players that when we track their analytics, the average speed, intensity and collisions are even higher than in their club games.” 

This is for imagination purposes only, but can you picture a Texas state representative team led by Patrick Mahomes, taking on California, quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers? Yes, please. 

For the NRL, the Vegas doubleheader will be the culmination of years of planning, with the week in Nevada also including a tournament featuring amateur rugby league teams from around North America, and a combine where U.S. athletes can try to gain the attention of NRL clubs. 

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Saturday’s games, kicking off on FOX in the evening in Las Vegas, fit neatly into the typical Sunday afternoon window on Australia’s east coast, due to the 19-hour time difference. 

“It is a bit surreal that after all the planning and the logistics, we are finally here,” Abdo said. “We’ve got this opportunity — and it is important that we get it right.” 

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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