Rugby League

Jarryd Hayne move highlights sports turf war

The doomsayers will tell you it's all about the money. Jarryd Hayne himself sells it as a new challenge.

But the awkward truth for the NRL and other topline Australian competitions is big time US sports leagues like the NFL are slowly moving in on their turf – winning over a younger generation of fans, and now luring away its athletes.

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While the NRL is most commonly shown on broadcast TV in standard definition, on delay, with a boorish boys club commentary team more concerned with playful banter than the game itself, the NFL is beamed into the homes and phones of a younger generation live and in crisp HD, by a team of independent analysts who focus in on teams' every moves.

This is a game followed by hundreds of millions, played in front of hundreds of thousands and performed by names bigger than Hollywood stars.

Jarryd Hayne announces his departure from the NRL to try his hand at American football.
Jarryd Hayne announces his departure from the NRL to try his hand at American football. 

In Australia it is no longer the novelty it was 20 years ago, airing by the grace of Don Lane's fading star for a three-hour slot on a Tuesday night on ABC TV.

For plugged-in fans it is ubiquitous on social media from August to February, with every player transgression or achievement an event in itself. Internet subscriptions allow Australian fans to watch every game whenever and wherever in the highest quality.

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It only takes a cursory glance at Jarryd Hayne's Twitter and Instagram accounts to see how won over he is by the quality and spectacle of the National Football League.

An avid fantasy football fan, an attendee of games in the US and a geeked-out fanboy when getting to meet one of the NFL's mid-level stars earlier this year, Hayne no longer wants to play the game he grew up loving as a kid from Minto.

Jarryd Hayne turns football fan at a Dallas Cowboys game.
Jarryd Hayne turns football fan at a Dallas Cowboys game. Photo: Instagram

Quite simply he, like a younger generation of NRL fans, has seen better and expects better.

This shift isn't so trivial to be purely about money. Even if Hayne was able to make the cut with a team next season he'd be making much less than what he would with Parramatta – a base salary for an NFL player entering the league in 2015 being just $435,000.

As Steve Mascord points out, this shift is about globalisation. It's about pre-internet boundaries being torn down so a bigger, brighter spectacle from half a world away can be enjoyed in Western Sydney as much as an NRL telecast.

Of course the fact the NRL is played here is the game's ultimate, undeniable advantage. But as the NRL makes its crust off television ratings with crowds dwindling, it's clear the NFL is a threat which can still hit much closer to home.

But there really is no reason to be pessimistic as long as the NRL and its broadcast partners are ready to rise to the challenge of producing a more professional, higher quality product.

They can start by providing a professional broadcast of analysts who strive to be incisive and independent, not bicker like a third rate Statlor and Waldorf or vie for careers as the next crossover comedy star. Or by forcing players to act like the professional athletes they are paid to be in their interactions with the public and commitments to the media. Or by adjusting scheduling to make each game an event worthy of the closest analysis, not just a State of Origin or Grand Final.

Most pertinently they can start by broadcasting the game in the latest and best technology - live - into every device they can.

Or else the game's lack of ambition will see it left behind as a younger generation – like Hayne – switch for good.

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