HomeAustralia and New ZealandNRL sparks code wars with ‘Australia’s Biggest Sport’ brag for Las Vegas jaunt

NRL sparks code wars with ‘Australia’s Biggest Sport’ brag for Las Vegas jaunt

NRL sparks code wars with ‘Australia’s Biggest Sport’ brag for Las Vegas jaunt

The National Rugby League (NRL) has ignited Australia’s sporting code wars by promoting itself as “Australia’s biggest sport” in its advertising materials for its upcoming venture into the United States.

The 2024 NRL season will kick off with a double-header event in Las Vegas in March – and the marketing campaign for the fixture, including a massive four-story billboard on the side of Allegiant Stadium proudly declaring, ‘Australia’s biggest sport unleashed in Vegas’.


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This audacious claim has not gone unnoticed, with prominent figures from the Australian Football League (AFL) expressing their disapproval. AFL luminaries, including former Hawthorn president and Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, former player Kane Cornes, former AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou and numerous AFL fans online have criticised the NRL’s brag.

One fan on the AFL Memes Facebook page commented, ‘Dream on NRL’, while another quipped, ‘Australia’s East Coast sport unleashed’.

Hunter Fujak, a lecturer at Deakin University and the author of the 2021 book Code Wars noted that, under the leadership of Australian Rugby League Commission Chair Peter V’landys, the NRL has actively fuelled the rivalry between the two sports in recent years.

“The AFL tends not to give it as much oxygen, and that’s probably a reflection of where things are that the NRL feels the need to whip up the ‘code wars’-style discussion,” Fujak observed.

The NRL promoted its State of Origin clash in Adelaide with the slogan, ‘Real footy is coming soon to Adelaide’.

Australia’s sports participation survey, Ausplay, ranks running, swimming and cycling as the most popular sport-related activities in the country. Association football (soccer) comes in fourth with over 1.1 million participants among those aged 15, while Australian rules football ranks 10th with 567,000 participants, trailing behind sports like basketball and netball. Rugby league, with 180,000 participants, falls further down the list.

In terms of attendance, the AFL remains Australia’s most-watched sporting league. In 2023, the NRL averaged just under 20,000 fans per match, a figure substantially lower than the AFL’s 36,000, according to analysis by sports industry blogger Jason Lassey.

However, television ratings suggest that the NRL is not far behind its Melbourne-based rival. Although the AFL grand final garnered slightly more viewers than the NRL’s grand final held the next day, the NRL draws considerable interest with its mid-season State of Origin broadcasts.

Fujak noted that when it comes to television ratings, the NRL has a legitimate claim to being the biggest sport. It appears to be leading the AFL in terms of digital presence, with the league, clubs and players gaining significant online traction.

“That’s going to be the next frontier, given that’s where young people will tend to be, and the biggest stars in rugby league tend to be better followed,” Fujak stated.

As an example, Brisbane’s young gun fullback Reece Walsh boasts 413,000 Instagram followers, surpassing Collingwood’s brilliant midfield tyro Nick Daicos, who has 241,000 followers.

The NRL’s decision to take its season-opening fixtures to the United States is part of a strategic move to tap into new broadcast and gambling markets. Notably, one of the four clubs involved, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, is sponsored by the New South Wales Government’s ‘Reclaim the Game’ initiative, which is designed to combat sports betting-related issues.

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