The National Rugby League’s road to recovery after the pandemic-enforced shutdown could be seen in the grand tradition of sports dramas: “if you build it, they will come”.
In tentatively planning how the NRL might get back onto the field, there was always the prize of being among the first sports leagues in the world to restart and those at the top were acutely aware of the huge exposure that would result if the game could make it happen. Rugby league has often felt that the biggest obstacle that it faces is the lack of global exposure, and traded on the idea that, once they see the game, fans will immediately be converted. If that is the case, then the NRL should ready itself for an influx of new converts, because they couldn’t have asked for much more from their big restart.
The NRL reported their biggest regular season ratings since at least 2014 for the Brisbane Broncos v Parramatta Eels game on Thursday, when 1.3 million viewers tuned in for the first live rugby league since mid-March. That number was 29.5% higher than the equivalent fixture last season.
“Last night was our highest rating regular season game in six years—that’s an outstanding result for the game and our broadcast partners,” said NRL interim CEO Anthony Abdo on NRL.com. “More than 1.3 million Australians watched the return of the Telstra Premiership. Everything our chairman Peter V’landys and the (ARL) Commission have done has been for our fans, our partners and our shareholders – the clubs and states. We’re delighted the resumption of the competition attracted so much interest and exposure for our partners.”
It wasn’t just in Australia. In the UK, the sport’s other heartland, “rugby league” and “#NRLBroncosEels” trended throughout the game on Twitter, with broadcast partner Sky Sports showing some of their first live sport in months. In America, Fox Sports showed the game on their main sports channel and Twitter was deluged with new fans and expat Australians. Exact figures are still being drawn up for how many tuned in, but the soft signal from Fox is that it was a new record in terms of international audience.
It was rugby league, but not as we knew it. A rule tweak designed to decrease stoppages and keep play moving saw the first round of games played at a breakneck speed, especially in the opening halves. Some had been skeptical of the effect that the “six again” rule would have, but early signs were that it achieved its purpose of increasing the pace, though the faster game led to second half blowouts as fatigue kicked in.
The other, more COVID-enforced difference was the lack of a crowd, which Fox Sports chose to mask with artificial crowd noise. While initially a little jarring, it did seem to work: by the second half, I (and I can only speak for myself, watching in lockdown) barely noticed it. Perhaps, in time, it will become like the vuvuzelas during the 2010 FIFA World Cup: initially annoying, but by the end, part of the experience.
Of course, with so many eyeballs on the games and, in particular, so many new eyeballs, the action on the field had to be up to scratch. The big ticket fixtures of the weekend were the Sydney Roosters-South Sydney Rabbitohs clash on Friday and the Melbourne Storm-Canberra Raiders match on Saturday, both of which delivered, with the Roosters and Raiders coming away with wins.
The performance of George Williams, the England international halfback who arrived in Canberra in the off-season, was hailed as “flawless” by rugby league legend Brad Fittler and saw the former Wigan man dominate social media back home as well as in Australia. On Sunday, the Newcastle Knights came back from 14-0 and two men down to secure what pundit Ben Ikin called the “greatest draw I have ever seen in the history of rugby league,” before Manly’s Trbojevic brothers, Tom and Jake, showed just how much they had learned in isolation together as they turned over the Canterbury Bulldogs by a score of 32-6.
Source: Forbes Business