The NRL returned in a made-for-TV event that saw broadcasters adopt some major innovations. (Photo: Screengrab, Channel Nine)

NRL returns — and empty stands go ‘wild’

There were lights, cameras, and try-scoring action. The only thing missing was the crowd in the stands.

The NRL returned to our screens on Thursday night, with Parramatta Eels thrashing Brisbane Broncos 34-6 in front of over 50,000 empty seats at Suncorp Stadium to kick off Round 3.

It’s expected that more than 30 million people worldwide tuned in to the first football code in the English-speaking world to return to live play during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shaken up most of the sporting world.

The NRL itself only got through two rounds before it was forced to suspend play in March, but with the Australian infection rate declining since then, the league has been hard at work obtaining the necessary green lights to get back up and running, as well as hyping up fans both current and potential for a May 28 kick-off date that’s been locked in since April.

And from the NRL’s perspective, it couldn’t have gone much better. Viewers were treated to 80 minutes of intense rugby league that’s guaranteed to bring most of them coming back for more, even if the atmosphere at the game couldn’t quite do it justice.

The league has boasted a total of just over 1.3 million viewing the blockbuster return across Nine and Fox Sports, the best they’ve recorded during a regular home-and-away season since 2014. The free-to-air ratings, at a viewership over 900,000, were also the highest for a regular-season game since 2016 and just snuck the NRL into the national top 10, while Fox’s 355,000 viewers are the broadcaster’s highest ever for a simulcast game.

The match topped the free-to-air ratings completely in Brisbane and Sydney, the respective homes of the two sides. No information is available on whether international viewership did indeed reach 30 million.

Without live crowds, all the fan action moved to Twitter, where the lead-up commentary demonstrated how much this one game meant. ABC Grandstand commentators shared their ‘privilege’ and ‘honour’ as they prepared to call their first game for two months.

And for die-hard fans, the hype made it feel ‘like grand final day’.

Even those who didn’t support either team were just keen to have rugby league back in their lives.

However, some of the novelty began to wear off as play got underway and the same old conversations and debates kicked off. While supporters couldn’t agree on the NRL implementing a new rule or having one less ref on the field, most directed their attention to the fake crowd noises added to TV broadcasts.

Watching entire rounds played with no fans allowed in the stands is taking some getting used to — Round 2 in March was the first time in the competition’s history that matches were played behind closed doors. Attempting to mitigate the almost alien feel of the stadium for viewers and inject some atmosphere, Nine and Fox added a virtual crowd audio to their programmes.

An idea copied from the German Bundesliga, the faux crowd is designed to react to the flow of the gameplay, cheering when a try is scored or a big hit is made and getting angry when players concede penalties and errors.

Online, the innovation drew its own cheers and jeers. But it changed the minds of some who weren’t convinced it would work, with comments that it “add(ed) value” and was “a must” for radio broadcasts.

Even AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan took a liking to it. Virtual crowds might also be used at AFL match broadcasts when its season resumes in two weeks.

Of course, it couldn’t please everyone. From “distracting” to “horrendous’, viewers found plenty of words to describe it.

For some, it had its moments. It was noted that the illusion could work when TV cameras were focused on the game without showing empty seats.

The fake atmosphere may yet improve, with the NRL to apply another Bundesliga innovation. For $22, fans can have a cardboard cutout of themselves occupying a seat at their team’s current home stadium. The cardboard supporters will remain at the same stadiums until Round 9 at the earliest, after which some will move to another stadium with their team.

A combination of cardboard fans and virtual crowd noise is the closest thing to an atmosphere that can be expected for some time.

But for most fans the return of live rugby league will suffice. After an agonising two-month wait, the road to the 2020 premiership has finally resumed, and viewers and die-hards around the world will be with the NRL for every game.