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Will Australian sports work on American television?

Next month, the Aussies are invading Vegas – and I’m not referring to Human Nature’s 50-year residency.

The National Rugby League will try its luck in the gambling capital of the world (unless you count Doyalson RSL) with the 2024 season opening double-header kicking off at Las Vegas’ glittery Allegiant Stadium on March 2. 

The Sea Eagles will take on the Rabbitohs, and the Roosters will tackle the Broncos. Translation issues aside in regards to the ‘Rabbitohs’ name, it should prove the perfect showcase of the game, and provide an entry point into the insanely lucrative US sporting television market. Plus, tickets are going for US$19 a pop, which is a sure bet for tipsy Vegas gamblers, and the stadium holds 65,000, so the atmosphere will be charged. What a debut!

This is certainly what boss Peter V’landys is hoping will happen – telling the DT in the week that he is currently in $200 million talks with Fox Sports to air live NRL games each week over the next half-decade – should this ‘pilot episode’, if you will, manage to rate well.

“I’m confident we will have the NRL live on American TV for the next five years,” V’landys told the paper, adding “we want the whole NRL season to be shown live in America if we can”, and correctly noting the entire exercise could be worth “hundreds of millions of dollars if we get it right.”

This pronouncement comes a few days before the biggest American sporting TV rights bonanza in history: The Super Bowl – also taking place at Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium.

The Super Bowl is the biggest day on the sporting calendar, and — much more importantly — the biggest day on the TV calendar. Last year’s match was watched by 115.1 million Americans, which is roughly one out of every three citizens. It was the most-watched US broadcast ever.

In fact, nine of the ten most-watched shows ever in the US, are Super Bowls.  The other one in the ten was the MASH finale, back in 1983 when TV was rubbish.

Of course, the Super Bowl is also the biggest advertising day of the year. The Super Bowl of advertising, if you will. A thirty-second advertisement during Monday’s Super Bowl costs a cool $7 million (A$10.8m). That’s just how much CBS sells its slots for – I’m sure the Hollywood cinematographers and directors and Chris Pratts probably aren’t doing it for free. 

All of which is to say, there’s a lot of money in sports broadcasting. 

During the week, Foxtel released its full-year financials. Subscriber numbers jumped, yet profits slipped, and skyrocketing sport broadcast rights costs were the main reason.

Between the NRL’s current domestic media rights partners – Nine, Fox Sports, and Sky TV NZ – the league is currently pocketing over $400 million each year.

Imagine if rugby league could break America. It could be the Hemsworth of Aussie sport. And as any Hemsworth can tell you, once you capture America – you capture the world. International television markets begin to open up, the world goes league mad, and suddenly you’ve got groups of Swedish guys taking pilgrimages to Penrith to visit hallowed Panthers turf -or at least to Hexham to visit the OAK factory.

V’landys knows this. He points to the UFC as an example of a relatively recent sport being slavishly adopted in droves by the Americans. “I believe we have the greatest game of all,” he told the DT, “and as soon as Americans understand the rules and see the collisions of the players, I believe rugby league will take off.”

Interesting wording. 

It will be, after all, be “the collisions of the players” that makes the game risky for US sports fans, already wary of the concussion narrative that has added a bit of ick factor to what was once an enjoyable weekend ritual.

Baseball is ‘America’s national pastime’ according to old black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons, but in actuality, it’s football, and by extension the NFL, that is by far the most popular sport/sporting league in the US.

However, fans have faced a moral quandary over the past decade or so, with science definitively proving that micro-concussions – the tens of thousands of brain-jolts a professional footballer will experience during a career – lead to a litany of awful conditions: anger issues, anxiety, depression, slurred speech, memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control issues, and suicidal tendencies.

This is micro-concussions, mind, just the small bumps, the rattling of a head in a helmet – and not the major knock-out blows that were once celebrated in the sport. Those are bad, too. 

The entire package of woes is classed under the condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, which takes decades to present, and can only be diagnosed in the brain after a sufferer has died. Damn science – ruining everything fun!

In 2015, the CTE Center at Boston University School of Medicine examined brain tissue from 91 deceased ex-NFL players, and found evidence of CTE in 87 of them. Seems quite definitive. The NFL quickly scrambled to settle a long-standing class action suit, brought by over 5,000 ex-players who claimed the league knew of the link between micro-concussions and CTE decades earlier than the media caught onto it and hid the fact, for the obvious financial reasons. 

Whether or not the league had prior knowledge on this remains murky – however, they did settle out-of-court for $1 billion.

All of which is to say: the dawning realisation that America’s favourite leisure activity is causing untold damage to generations of young players has put a stain on the game.

And the NFL, with its padding and helmets, is a far less violent game, at least at face value, than rugby league.

V’landys, we may have a problem.

However, as V’landys also pointed out, the NRL isn’t likely to appeal to the mass audience that watches the NFL, the NBA, or even those who pretend to like baseball. These sports are in the DNA of all Americans, who played, watched, barracked, or avoided them since before they could spell ‘concussion’. 

Where the NRL is more likely to find an audience is with those mad keen sports fans, the type that will slavishly follow canoe slalom every four years at the Olympics, and with fans of fringe-yet-mainstream sports like boxing and UFC.

The UFC has sanctioned ultra-violence in sports, rising almost in concert with the increase in anti-football sentiment. Boxing has also managed to move from a pursuit that every young American boy should learn alongside shooting a gun, tying a reef knot, and freezing a deer carcass, to an underground sport that lives in taverns and gambling hotspots, while still commanding insanely large audiences and huge financial windfalls for most involved.

So there is definitely a home for rugby league. It’s also a far more fast-paced sport than Americans are used to, which may offer a similar UFC-style excitement for the Ritalin-raised, TikTok scrolling, hurry up hurry up, three devices in one hand society it is trying to enter.

The main insult you can sling at US sport is that it is slow. NFL has a stoppage after every single play, while the final 60 seconds of any close NBA game is stretched out to untenable lengths, with multiple time-outs, visits to the free-throw line, and whatnot, the clock stopping each time. As for baseball – well, I think it’s still broadcasting in black and white. 

Rugby league is fast. It’s also precise. It tells you what time it will turn up, what time it will leave, and then does so.

Now, I have no actual evidence for what I’m about to type, but a lot of credit for the recent, quick uptake of soccer in America is surely due to the exact nature of the playing time – 45 minutes a half, the half-time break, and a few minutes of ‘stoppage’ time. You can plan your day around a soccer game. Most importantly, you can plan your television programming around it – there is no risk of a soccer match running two hours overtime — as is often the case with baseball games — and eating into the timeslot of MacGyver or Murphy Brown, or whatever the hell Americans watch these days.

Rugby League is perfect for advertising in America. And advertising in America is all that TV networks care about. 

Final point: Americans love Australians. Margot Robbie. Tame Impala. Hemsworth, Gibson, Kidman, Hemsworth, Crowe, Elordi, Bana, Laroi, Hemsworth, Sivan, Minogue, Blanchett. 

They’re giving us Oscars, and Emmys and Grammys by the ute-load. The Americans can’t get enough of us. The Americans can’t get enough of sport. It’s a done deal. NRL is launching, in America, in prime time, in Las Vegas.

The odds are good. Let’s gamble.

Enjoy your weekend.

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