For years now, fans living outside most countries with a professional rugby league team have largely been forced to pay an annual subscription to watch NRL games and related content.
Most international viewers new to the game of rugby league can only access content via the Watch NRL app, a high quality platform that provides access to live NRL and sundry content; Watch NRL is administered, and runs, through Fox Sports Australia.
Prices for the Watch NRL app are AU $199 per year, $39.99 per month or $20 per week. This pricing is appropriate when catering for the Australian, New Zealand or English ex-pat community, however, said communities are largely irrelevant when compared to the rest of the world who are being shut out of any free NRL footage.
“We are committed to a five-year plan to grow the NRL in the United States’ market and will aim to play at least one game in the US in 2024”, NRL CEO Andrew Abdo recently told the media. Unless this plan includes a drastic increase in free content in emerging markets then short-term profits are being prioritised over any long-term growth.
To be clear, NRL in the US isn’t available only through the Watch NRL app, however obtaining coverage through the Fox Soccer Plus add-on is just as troublesome, Jim Powers, co-host of the popular Rugby League in America podcast recently told Everything Rugby League.
“The NRL is almost wholly unknown in the United States outside the Australian expat/immigrant community and outlier Americans like me who like alternative sports. Their games are primarily on the Fox Soccer Plus network- a premium pay channel that isn’t offered in all packages”.
Speaking specifically to the value that the Watch NRL platform provides to American consumers, Powers went on to say “Watch NRL is, to be blunt, extortionate here in the United States, costing more for a single week than the ESPN+ and Paramount Plus services cost monthly, combined. Both those services offer hundreds of sporting events as well”.
The much touted in-season NRL game to be staged on America’s west coast in 2024 is expected to make up to AU $20 million from the recent relaxing of gambling legislation in the US. While $20m is nothing to be sneezed at, it will almost certainly fail to grow the game unless fans have ongoing and easy access the two teams they’ve just seen throughout the rest of the year.
“The only slight knowledge of the NRL, and certainly the only time it has been mentioned at all in the US sports media in the last 20 years, came from when Valentine Holmes tried out for the NFL team, the Jets and when Jarryd Hayne tried out for the 49ers. The inability to easily find it combined with the fact that the majority of Americans do not follow rugby union (let alone know rugby league exists) dooms it to obscurity”, said Powers.
The US might be a great example of rugby league’s ability to shoot itself in the foot for short-term gains however the problem is even more glaring when you zoom out and focus on access for the rest of the world. While there are a number of pay-tv platforms that fans can access as alternatives to Watch NRL, such as ESPN in Africa or Mono in Thailand, each approach is largely guilty of charging a premium for a product people either don’t know about or don’t yet have demand for.
One of the feel-good stories at the recent Rugby League World Cup was the passion and pride of Brazil’s women’s team. This writer is confident that each of the teams’ players would have spent hours trying to explain what rugby league actually is to friends and family. Having limited content to show as examples, even via YouTube, would have made things almost beyond explanation.
Rugby league is not like soccer (football), where the rules can essentially be explained with the one sentence of “get the ball in the other goal without letting it hit your hand”. The appeal of rugby league is its’ physicality and intensity; attributes that are difficult to explain unless you see them. The average weekly income in Brazil is approximately $176 USD. Few people can justify adding NRL viewership to their budget even if they wanted to, yet there is no question that Brazilians are extremely suited to playing the sport of rugby league, which requires passion and athleticism as innate attributes.
Whilst accurate revenue figures for international television and streaming rights are not made available, it’s clear that they account for a very low percentage of total NRL revenue, now valued at more than $600m annually. Realistically, the NRL should add any revenue generated outside of non-traditional rugby league countries to a future fund aimed at developing viewership and its brand outside of Australia and New Zealand.
To be clear, the above solution is largely specific to the NRL competition and brand as they are the ones who will see any benefits from the results of these efforts. The wider task of local game governance and oversight at a macro level should still be left to the International Rugby League (IRL) and local affiliates.
Currently, the NRL’s future fund is largely set aside for asset investment, such as the $25m purchase of Brisbane’s Gambaro Hotel. Asset accumulation on behalf of the NRL is desperately needed and is right now a glaring hole in an otherwise quite healthy balance sheet. If the NRL does manage to gross $20m in gambling royalties from the in-season competition game in 2024, this money should also be set aside for providing easy access to viewership in the market the funds were derived from. While this is really only applicable to the US, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
As the old saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. If the NRL continues to pursue a fierce philosophy of no leakage, even at an international level, it will cut itself off from a whole world of potential new fans and athletes. Something needs to give in this space because as a sport, we’re simply too small to restrict ourselves this much.