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Open Rugby's History of USRL - Part 1

The Observer

Staff member
Anyone that has a interest in RL in the USA should read this article. Open Rugby magazine (a British publication now known as Rugby League World at http://www.totalrugbyleague.com/) published a 5 part series on the history USRL Inc. It gives a fascinating and crucial insight into the REAL workings of the history of the game - HOW and WHY things happened, not just events and dates.

It details the involvement of Mike Mayer in the game of RL. This guy is a true hero of the game, and had been assisted in his efforts by the ARL and RFL, RL in the USA could have actually gone somewhere.

There are American RL players like USA_Falcon, Tomahawk and Hot Dog - you may not have heard of Mayer so this is absolutely essential reading for you.

For twenty years. United States Rugby League President Michael Mayer has steadfastly withstood furious opposition to his vision for Rugby League's future development. Now, as old friends have passed away, and former enemies are swept aside by revolutionary changes in the game.
Is he destined to be the "LAST MAN STANDING?"


MIKE MAYER in 1997 - twenty years down the track and NEVER more determined. "I am not ashamed of the so-called cloth cap Northern identity of Rugby League. It is who we are. But we cannot exist in poverty today because we are so addicted to a destructive nostalgia that we are without meaningful enterprise. We must seize the future and fashion it to the benefit of the game. Even so, this commercial imperative must always be tempered by a heartfelt reverence for Rugby League's sterling heritage and our duty to be competent stewards of this glorious inheritance".

When Michael Mayer emerged from his first International Board meeting in 1977, he flatly told the Sydney press: "A bunch of monkeys could run the game better than these guys."

What irritated Mayer was that the deans of the game were blithely oblivious to the converging forces that would radically alter the business of sport. Living in countries with State-run television, they could not see, and worse yet, did not want to see, what Mayor's American vision could see: Rugby League's vast potential!

Mayer brushed aside the Australian Rugby League-led dismissal of his development proposal and pursued a working relationship with the (British) Rugby Football League. Mayer believed he could win over the British, and could then win over the others. It would not come easily.

He withstood an early formal rejection by the RFL Council and endured two years of grinding person-to-person discussions with individual members before a nearly unanimous RFL Council agreed to establish an
exclusive partnership with the United States Rugby League Inc. By early 1981 Mayer had also signed up Australia, France and New Zealand.

It is doubtful that any individual, before or since, has undergone such a rigorous examination of personal character and business acumen by the RFL Council as Mayer did. His unrelenting tenacity earned
him an unqualified endorsement. He won the support and confidence of some of the most notable men in recent Rugby League history, including Tom Mitchell of Workington, Harry Ditchfield of Widnes, Brian Snape of Salford, Phil Brunt of Castleford, Sir Oswald Davies of Warrington, Bill Oxley of Barrow, Jack Myerscough of Leeds, Harry Womersley of Bradford Northern, Colin Hutton, Bill Land and Max
Gold of Hull K.R„ Joe Seddon of St.Helens, and David Wigham of Whitehaven.

"They became my partners, mentors, and friends," says Mayer. These were also the men most responsible for igniting a modern resurgence of the game when they hired and collaborated with 'the two Davids', David Oxley and David Howes, who directed this renaissance from the later 1970s well into the next decade. It was a time of optimism and co-operation at the Chapeltown Road RL Headquarters and Mayer was adopted into the Rugby League family without reservation.

In 1979, Mayer wrote and produced This Is Rugby League, the first-ever Film made specifically to market the game. He brokered a three-year telecast of the Challenge Cup Final with ABC television in
the USA that was later extended to seven years. Oxley and Howes travelled to the States that year to study the management of the Milwaukee Brewers (baseball), the Chicago Bears and New York Jets (football), and the National Football League's Properties division, among other American sporting organisations.

Also, Hull K.R. signed Tim Anchors and Pat Kelly, two former American footballers Mayer hand-picked to demonstrate how quickly the LISA could adapt to the game. With Rovers at their zenith, Anchors and Kelly worked through training with local amateur sides in Hull to earn regular positions in the 'A' team championship side during the 1979-80 season, and made appearances in the first team by the end of the year. Then an enormous obstacle appeared on the horizon.

News reports began circulating in the USA during the autumn of 1980 concerning The United States football League, a springtime professional gridiron league. It would be heavily financed, and occupy the same time - slot in the American sporting calendar that Mayer had envisioned for Rugby League. It would be impossible for Rugby League to compete with.

Mike Mayer was devastated.

Nevertheless, he quickly shook off his disappointment and secured the USFL ownership documents and studied them intently. Writing a point-by-point analysis in early 1981, Mayer correctly predicted the eventual demise of the new league. He advised his partners in the RFL that they would have to wait it out, but he doubted that most of them really understood the complexities of what was happening.

With massive amounts of money and publicity build-up, the USFL played three seasons, 1983-85. With spectators and TV viewership disappearing, the league dissolved in a flurry of lawsuits.
Mayer had been right, but the cost was high. With the publicity surrounding the USFL start-up and its climactic legal challenge to the NFL, over five years had been lost to the United States Football League, and the atmosphere in America towards new sports leagues was definitely negative.

New problems arose within the game that threatened to end Mike Mayor's Rugby League career entirely, but he was ready to meet them head-on. "At the 1985 International Board meeting in Paris, the Australian Rugby League was determined to take over the direction of the game worldwide. They nominated their Chairman, Ken Arthurson, to be the new Director-General of the International Board, forcing the International Board Secretary, Bill Fallowfield out of the way," recalls Mayer.

Learning of the ARL plan shortly before the meeting, Mayer drafts a proposal to establish an office devoted strictly to the commercial development of Rugby League, headed by an Executive Director accountable to the International Board. He wrote, in part:


• LAST MAN STANDING? Seated, front row, left to right: Jack Myercough (G.B.), Ron McGregor (N.Z.), Kevin Humphreys (Australia), René Mauries (France), Dr. Jim Jacobi (P.N.G.). Standing; Ben Sabumei (P.N.G.), David Oxley (G.B.),, Ken Arthurson (Australia), Mike Mayer (U.S.), Bill Fallowfield (I.B. Secretary), Bill Oxley (G.B.), Bill Nesbitt (N.Z.), Raymond Chesa (France).

When assembling for the photograph, Kevin Humphreys promptly seated himself in the centre chair, a place traditionally occupied by the Chairman of the host R.L. country. French President René Maurles observed, only half-joking: "He thinks he's Mussolini!"

"While the Rugby League International Board does govern the game in member countries, Rugby League Football in each individual nation demands tile majority of each international Board Delegate's time and attention.

"Consequently, many opportunities are missed or poorly developed with regard to marketing the sport on an international basis. A global effort, cohesively designed and implemented, will place all member countries
of Me International Board In the best position possible in order to seize the business opportunities available to Rugby League, taking proper advantage of them ft. the benefit of the game everywhere.

"The position of Executive Director of The Rugby League International Board is primarily that of marketing manager for, expediter to, and facilitator of, communication between all Rugby League nations and their business interests. "

Mayer knew that the ARL would have no plan nor be able to articulate any details regarding Arthurson's mandate as Director- General, other than a nebulous 'to promote the game'. So, Mayer outlined specifics in his proposal for business development which caught the Australians flat-footed.

They were not pleased.

It was a gamble for Mayer. He never believed that the ARL would ever participate in any constructive effort to expand the game, and felt that they were, in fact, determined to get him out of the way anyhow, fearing
that any success in the US/ would accrue benefits to the British instead of them.

But the British wanted peace with the Australians.

"The British delegations to recent International Board meetings had not taken a strong stance with the bullying ARL so I reasoned that, even though the British might be upset in the short term, slagging
down the ARL would set a necessary precedent that would be beneficial regardless. It was simply the right thing to do," Mayer said.

Ken Arthurson had never had much use for Mayer, going back to their first meeting in France at the 1980 International Board meeting. At that conference, ARL President Kevin Humphreys denied ever signing an agreement with the USRL Inc. Arthurson was Humphreys' second at
the meeting. Mayer not only produced the signed original agreement between the two organisations, he showed the Board the agreement Humphreys had drafted previously where USRL Inc. shares were issued to Humphreys, not the ARL, before Mayer had USRL Inc. attorneys rewrite it.

"It was an embarrassing confrontation for the Australian delegates," says Mayor.

So, soon after Arthurson became leader air- the game, he began in earnest to try and undermine the USRL Inc. Mayor was vulnerable, and he knew it. The time lost to the USFL and the passing of many of his
friends from the (British) Rugby League Council put Mayer at odds with newer R.L. officials who knew little of the LISA, but blindly supported Arthurson's point of view that 'nothing has ever happened'.

But Mayer would not retreat from his determination that substantial financial underpinnings, serious commercial partnerships, and a talented, motivated management team were still the necessary requirements to expanding Rugby League anywhere successfully.

It was the Australian Rugby he root cause of the growing rift between Mike Mayer and Ken Arthurson could be traced directly to their backgrounds, not cultural as in American versus Australian, but philosophical, as between an entrepreneur and a politician. Mayer was the product of an athletic system in which he competed in its most sophisticated programmes, from grammar school through high school
and university to professional.

Values of discipline, preparation, execution and performance were continually reinforced within a code that demanded commitment, excellence, and individual responsibility to accomplish team goals.

The objective was to win.

Constant film review allowed no excuses for missed assignments. The job had to be done right, mistakes corrected and eliminated, and, although the meticulously formulated game plan was to be followed prudently, crises would arise and setbacks occur. A spirit of instant, resolute response (adversity and immediate capitalisation upon opportunity
permeated this philosophy of for sport and life.

Ken Arthurson had also been an athlete who performed at the highest levels, and a successful coach. However, in Mayor's eyes he had been too long an administrator who had moved through a system that promoted individuals based upon craft and political dexterity.

"The leaders of Rugby League worldwide operated to satisfy their own mutual self-interest first," he believed. "Given the years of committee work that most officials had invested in order to finally reach the top reflected the notion of having earned the position and the perks of the job, not the necessity of leadership that compelled them to build toward the future, serving the best interests of the game. In their minds, they
believed that they had already done that Mike Mayer had reached out to Ken Arthurson and tried to reason with him

In 1980, meeting with him privately at the International Board meeting in France following the blow-up with Kevin Humphreys. When Humphreys would to resign in disgrace, Mayer again tried to involve Arthurson in a proposed Hull Kingston Rovers versus Parramatta match the USA.

He refused, citing an inability to play outside the domestic ARL schedule,
even though Mayer pointed out that, plan two years in advance, the June game would easily fit within one of the byes that were already factored into NSWRL fixtures.

Arthurson also refused to work with Mayer on the telecast of NSWRL matches into Q USA. Joe Asceti, an ABC director working Challenge Cup telecasts had described to Mayer the poor production values of BBC feeds that he had to edit for ABC's broadcasts. They discussed the much better Australian TV productions and the possibilities of expanded Rugby League coverage. "If we could produce this game like an NFL game," Asceti said, "it would be huge."

Kevin Humphreys had already killed a potential deal with ESPN in 1978, when the cable network was in its infancy. Michael Mayer, seeing the potential audience for Rugby League, begged Humphreys to allow him to negotiate with the programme-hungry network. Humphreys refused. It was a critical blow to Rugby League and an incredible lost opportunity. ESPN went to; VFL and Australian Rules could receive the benefit of continually increasing exposure on American TV that should have been Rugby League's.

This was a lost opportunity that still haunts Mike Mayer almost 20 years later.

Rugby League officials were never convinced that television was the key
component to an assault on the American sports marketplace. In Britain, the RFL Television Committee regularly went to the BBC with cap in hand, like a servant to the estate landlord at the end of the week.

Whatever the Lords of the BBC deemed to give Rugby League for their 'marginal product' was thankfully received and never questioned, for fear of being put off the Air.

When Mayer began criticising the quality of the BBC presentation and broached the idea of the RFL buying time on ITV and producing the matches themselves, his suggestions were dismissed like that of a new shipmate proposing a mutiny to a crew resigned to their fate. To Mayer, the BBC was holding the game back, and the rapidly improving telecasts from Australia produced by people like David Hill at Channel Nine were what Americans needed to be exposed to. So he was stuck, with available footage from Britain that even ABC had a problem with, and the refusal of the ARL to release any of their TV matches to the USA.

After the 1985 International Board meeting in Paris, Mayer knew that the ARL was going to try and push him out of a high window. The United States Football League was still playing, so there was little that he could offer his British partners except his resolute conviction that nothing worthwhile could be accomplished in the USA until the USFL was a distant bad memory.

American investor interest in any new sporting venture was non-existent. The looming USFL-NFL court battle dominated the sports pages, One thing Mayer knew was that "whatever the Australian Rugby League decided to do would be firmly planted in their totally mistaken idea that they understood the American sports market, and were equal to its demands." Mayer had discussed the USRL at length with enough Australian officials to understand that their strongly held opinions need not have any factual basis for them to savagely defend them.

The ARL made its move in the summer of 1986 when it announced it was going to stage an October 1987 State of Origin match in New York at Giants Stadium. Paul Hogan and Olivia Newton-John were to promote it with a dual kick-off by USA President Ronald Reagan and Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. They expected to sell most of the 85,000 tickets at
US$20 each. The Australian Tourism Commission was involved in the promotion dubbed Aus-Tober'. At least one million dollars was to be spent. It was so much flannel. Mike Mayer said nothing publicly as he studied the press clippings sent to him by confederates in Australia and England. He waited. One thing Mayer really hated was people who didn't do their homework.

Apart from Oxley and Howes, who had studied American sport first-hand, there remained only a few true believers in the United States Rugby League left in British RL circles. No-one from the British RFL was willing to defend their contractual rights and interest in the American company, as the international direction of the game was dependent upon the totally unrelated out-come of the Test matches. "We have to beat them on the pitch," was the standard British reply as to why they would not challenge the ARL leadership on any important matter at International Board meetings, which Mike Mayer found to be ludicrous.

In October of '86 Mayer raised fistfuls of questions about the Australian New York gambit in an article that appeared in OPEN RUGBY. The NFL and college football seasons, artificial turf, the baseball World Series, and the pittance a million bucks was in New York were only a few of the topics the ARL had not addressed. Apparently, the Australian Tourism Commission was then inspired to ask the ARL something like, "Yeah, what about all this stuff?" The deal evaporated like the nothingness from whence it came.

In the meantime, the USFL v NFL court battle raged on furiously, finally ending - the USFL winning a damage award of US$1.00. On April 7, 1987 Ken Arthurson sent a letter to Mike Mayor regarding the new thrust of his campaign to win the hearts of Americans for Rugby League. The NSW-QLD match would now be played in Long Beach, California in August. NEXT August! Arthurson wrote: "I have conveyed your thoughts to my Board and it has been decided to support your suggestions on venue,
playing surface, and time."

Mayer just laughed. He had been expecting something like this, and says he had not had any conversation with Arthurson at all about the New York match or anything else. Mayer tried to speak sense to Arthurson one more time. He replied by fax on April 13, inviting Arthurson to come to the USA for a seven day fact finding tour that listed thirteen meetings in four cities with various sports/business/law experts associated with the USRL Inc. Mayer also sent a four page Legal Opinion drafted by USRL Inc.
attorneys in November 1986 in anticipation of the ARL's next move. It outlined what he saw as the clear legal position of the American company and the rights of its shareholders regarding Rugby League development in the USA.

With only four months until the proposed game in California, Mayer would try to talk them out of it, or at least negotiate an accommodation for the USRL Inc. in whatever the ARL was dead-set on doing. "I knew that Arthurson was needing to save face."

On April 22, Arthurson responded with an angry fax that threatened to set the lawyers on Mayer if he interfered with the ARL plan in any way, and demanding a response agreeing to such by April 30 - or else. Mayer just shook his head in disbelief. The Legal Opinion he had sent "merely affirmed the USRL Inc. position as agreed to by a majority of the members of the International Board and in accordance with their own Constitution".

Mayer waited again. The Australians blinked. On April 30, Mike Mayer received a fax from Bob Abbott, ARL National Secretary, informing him that Ken Arthurson would be in Los Angeles on May 9, and asking if Mayer would meet with him. "Please treat this request as urgent", Abbot wrote. As Mayer flew out to California in May of 1987, he knew that stopping the game would not accomplish anything useful. He needed to push the Australians into a manageable accommodation that would allow him
to squeeze whatever benefit to the continuing and legitimate interests of USRL Inc. shareholders he could.

It was going to be a terrific struggle. For nearly ten years Mayer had expended Herculean effort and applied unrelenting dedication in pursuing what he truly believed were the best interests of Rugby League Football. Now, squaring off against his enemies from within the game itself, Mayer would have no help from those eminent men of the British Rugby League Council who had been his partners, mentors, and friends, most now having passed away from the scene. Even so, there was one realisation that strengthened Mike Mayer for the battle that lay ahead: he firmly believed his former colleagues in Britain had been right about him, and that's why they had given him charge of their beloved game.

• Next month in Part Two: The battle in California behind the scenes at the 1987 NSW-QLD State of Origin match in Long Beach. Also, the decline of The Rugby Football League ... and what really happened during the 1989 Wigan-Warrington match in Milwaukee and how RFL Chief Executive
Maurice Lindsay tried to bury Mike Mayer... forever!" * Exclusively in OPEN RUGBY ... Don't miss it!!

Big Bunny

Cheers for posting that Joker. It was quite hard to read the article, painful even, since it illustrates so well the ignorance that the likes of Ken Arthurson have burdened rugby league with for far too long. It is testament to the game that it is able to endure and still thrive despite the many failed administrations at its helm in the past. If you are posting the other parts that would be great, but I dread in particular reading what Chariman Mo's actions were. It is a shame that his particular blight is still inflicting damage, however with more people like Richard Lewis and David Gallop around, perhaps the old brigade will eventually be put to the sword so that fresh ideas and business sense might prevail.

The Observer

Staff member
I'm glad to post - the series of articles is a tragic reminder of how RL administration has sabotaged the game's future too often.

Unfortunately I think I lost the magazines with the other parts of the story. I had part 2 scanned, but Part 1 was the only one in text format. I'll see what I can find though, and there will be fans on either this board or others (like RLFANS or totalrl) who will have the other parts.

Mo was just as bad as Arko, and if anyone still fails to understand why the SL war had to take place then this part and especially part 2 should be a clear demonstration.

I don't know where Mike Mayer is now, if he is alive or what he is doing (although Marytn Sadler and the totalrl/RLW people would) but it would be nice to see him involved in RL in the USA or AMNRL now. If he were, then it would be progressing leaps and bounds instead of remaining static, that's for sure.


The sad thing about Mayer is that he worked so hard and actually achieved quite a lot at the time, but nothing is left to show for all his efforts.
Getting a SOO game played in America was an amazing feat of persuasion on his part.


Did you say that you have the 2nd part of the article as well? I'd like to see it posted. The first part was incredibly interesting. Thanks for posting it!

deluded pom?

yankeeboy said:
Did you say that you have the 2nd part of the article as well? I'd like to see it posted. The first part was incredibly interesting. Thanks for posting it!

The copies of Open Rugby which contains these articles are probably still available if you`re interested in them .

Alan Shore

First Grade
Is Mike Mayer still around? I want to get in contact with him, and it would be good if he got involved with the AMNRL. As usual, we had antique, ignorant egotistical jackasses like Arko, and a man in Mike Mayer who was ahead of his time.

The Observer

Staff member
Tamazoid, I'm not sure where Mayer is, but if anyone knows it will be the people at totalrl.com. I'd send them an email or call them up and ask for his contact details. If you do speak to him, let us know what he has to say.

hot dog

Have a look around Chicago.....someone I know ran into Mayer in Vegas recently. I've read the old articles in the old newspapers about the SOO games he staged here. Unbelievable!!