Basak Yagci watching the NRL in his London home with son Kaya and daughter Lara. Picture: Hollie Adams
Basak Yagci watching the NRL in his London home with son Kaya and daughter Lara. Picture: Hollie Adams

In a world starved of sport, NRL found a global audience

The NRL has taken over British television, with the Parramatta Eels and Brisbane Broncos ending a live sports drought.

Sky Sports, the main broadcaster, played the NRL match on three channels, including Main Event, which was normally reserved for top flight English soccer.

The Australian game was drawing in new fans, as well as providing a fix for UK Super League fans, who have been desperate for some live sport.

Premier League soccer fan Basak Yagci has soaked up the return of rugby league as the hungry sports fans in the UK devoured the first live action in months.

He watched the game in his south west London home with son, Kaya, six, a Chelsea fan, and daughter Lara, five.

"I don't really understand the rules. I watch American football but this doesn't look as complicated as American football," he said.

"So they can throw the ball left and right, but they can't throw forward? How do they turn over the ball?"

Mr Yagci supports Liverpool in the Premier League, who are anxiously waiting to get back on the pitch as it hopes to claim the championship.

He said in the meantime he would "definitely" keep watching league.

 

The sports-starved British family were happy to see a game on TV, even if they didn’t understand all of the rules. Picture: Hollie Adams
The sports-starved British family were happy to see a game on TV, even if they didn’t understand all of the rules. Picture: Hollie Adams

 

The NRL's early return, and the arrival of Sonny Bill Williams at the Toronto Wolfpack and Israel Folau at the Catalans Dragons, which both play in the UK Super League, have added interest to the NRL.

And the news that Greg Inglis was coming out of retirement to play with the Warrington Wolves next year has also made national headlines in newspapers including The Sun.

Josh Chapman, of Keighley, near Leeds in the north of England, said the NRL had a window to gain popularity in Britain.

"Lots of people are talking about it on my social media because we haven't had sport for a while," he said.

 

Mitchell Moses of the Paramatta Eels takes on the defence during the match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Parramatta Eels in Brisbane. Picture: Getty Images
Mitchell Moses of the Paramatta Eels takes on the defence during the match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Parramatta Eels in Brisbane. Picture: Getty Images

 

And he said that the Australian stars in Super League were giving the NRL a bigger profile.

"I have had friends who don't watch rugby league message me and they are talking about it," he said.

"A friend went to a Toronto Wolfpack game against Castleford at Headingley just because Sonny Bill Williams was playing."

Chapman, who supports Cronulla in the NRL, and works at Keighley Cougars Rugby League Club, promoted the game to the UK fans.

He posted stats about each NRL club so UK fans could pick a team.

Sky Sports was promoting the game to its viewers, saying it was playing all eight live NRL fixtures over the weekend, starting with the Broncos and Eels match.

 

Matt Astill, the former Manly and Newtown Jets player now living in the US, pictured with his son Dylan 7, watching the resumed NRL season. Picture: Supplied
Matt Astill, the former Manly and Newtown Jets player now living in the US, pictured with his son Dylan 7, watching the resumed NRL season. Picture: Supplied

 

BIG APPLE BLUES IN A NEW LEAGUE

For the past 12 years, former Sydney footy player Matt Astill's midtown New York City bar was the most popular place for Aussie expats to gather to watch the NRL.

But after selling his pub, The Australian, in January, the former Manly and Newtown Jets player will instead watched the resumed season in his New Jersey living room.

"It's bittersweet," said Mr Astill, 45.

"I've been so desperate for sport I'm watching Korean baseball, so rugby league coming back is the best thing. But it will be surreal watching it alone and out of the bar."

Mr Astill moved to New York 20 years ago to play rugby league, a not-well paying job he supplemented with bar work.

He met his American doctor wife, Nicole, at a "divey" Upper East Side bar and eventually opened The Australian with a business partner.

They served meat pies and sausage rolls and screened every Australian sport event they could manage with their cable subscription, drawing an all-hours crowd of expats and American adoptees eager to learn the rules of the "foreign" games.

 

The Parramatta Eels smashed the Brisbane Broncos. Picture: AAP
The Parramatta Eels smashed the Brisbane Broncos. Picture: AAP

Dignitaries such as visiting PMs and Aussie CEOs, sport teams and celebrities were also among those to raise a glass at his bar.

Mr Astill and his partner sold the pub in January, just weeks before the coronavirus came along to devastate his adopted hometown.

"I don't take it for granted at all. For now I'm here at home looking after the kids. We'll see what happens in the future."

But no matter what happens in the long term, Mr Astill said that until October he will have a standing appointment that started at 5.30am Thursday, New York time.

"There are only a few ways to watch footy here, it's not prime time on ESPN, but when you want to find it you can," he said.

 

Originally published as In a world starved of sport, NRL found a global audience