I can’t think of too many other sports in the entire world that sees top of the line players depart at the peak of their careers to pursue “dreams” of doing other things.
Rugby League should be very proud of the fact that it produces world class athletes that can even consider switching to other sports. When you look at how many NRL players have gone on to be stars in other sports, its pretty impressive.
The question is rarely about a players ability to make a switch to another sport, it is more about why they choose to make that switch.
Money is always a massive factor in these decisions. While Jarryd Hayne will earn far less playing in the NFL even if he goes over there on day one and blows them away with his athletic ability, for most other players that leave Rugby League money is the number one reason they leave.
That is changing in the NRL as the salary cap rises and representative payments rise too, but there are still players who are making the decision to leave Rugby League, and they tend to make that decisions fairly easily.
Media scrutiny is obviously one reason. A lot of the Rugby League media is poisonous. They try to get on the good side of players and then will happily tear them to shreds when required. Sometimes players have no one else to blame but themselves. Even so, that is a factor I am sure many players take into account. A player can leave Rugby League and be far less accountable to the media. That would be a nice change for a lot of high profile players.
The chance to play on a wider international scale is something else players must consider. The terrible thing about this is that Rugby League has an international scene, it just doesn’t use it very well. Rugby League is so heavily skewed towards the club game that international matches are thrown on by the governing bodies as an after thoughts. England for instance have not played an international since losing the World Cup semi final match on home soil last year. That is a ridiculous situation Rugby League must address.
I think the culture of Rugby League at the professional level is something to consider. Top players find it far easier to leave the spot all together rather than switch clubs, and you have to wonder why that is. There are so many opportunities in Rugby League, so many challenges. I think of Greg Inglis moving to the South Sydney Rabbitohs for instance.
Why do our elite players see more challenges outside of the sport than they do within the sport?
The extremely long Rugby League season is a factor. Many people don’t realize that there are very few sports anywhere else in the world that have the type of season Rugby League has.
Players these days can be playing games in February right through to the end of November. For a collision sport, that is a ridiculous scenario. Players get physically worn down by the grind of the Rugby League season. We are simply playing way too many games.
I think personal freedoms in terms of a players earning capacity outside of the salary cap is a major issue. In many other sports around the world we are seeing a trend where by a players commercial endorsements far outweigh their contract to play with their clubs.
The NRL heavily restricts what a player can earn outside of their club contracts so that we don’t see a situation where by small market teams lose players to big market teams because personal sponsors get more bang for their buck if a player move to a big city. With a higher salary cap in place these days and the ability to watch the game anywhere in the world if you choose to, I think this is less of an issue these days.
Basically, I think if we lifted restrictions on third part agreements with real sponsors, the sky would not fall in on Rugby League.
I think that the attitude of the Rugby League supporter base has something to answer for as well these days. Over the last few years Rugby League supporters in general have turned into a bunch of angry arseholes. Players get attacked constantly and there is a real air of negativity that permeate the supporter base these days.
After a big game you are far more likely to see people reacting angrily about a result rather than just copping a loss. It is very strange. As someone that enjoys their Rugby League I can not understand the mindset of some people to watch a football game and get angry about it every single time. Players cop that anger every week, even when they win games. Eventually, anyone would get sick of the abuse and would wonder if there was something else they could do.
Rugby League is a very tough sport to play. It takes its toll on a player physically and mentally. The grind of a season, the media spotlight, the negativity, the culture of the game, the money available to a player, the restrictions on sponsorship…it all plays its part.
At some point every single truly elite player in the game over the last 15 years has come to the realization that Rugby League isn’t as fun as it once was. Some push through that feeling while others look elsewhere to continue their professional sporting career.
The game itself is great! While it is physically demanding, Rugby League allows a great athlete to highlight their ability. Its just everything else that comes with Rugby League right now that is easy to walk away from.
This is an issue the game needs to start to thing about. We need to stop making Rugby League the difficult choice. We need to start making Rugby League enjoyable again. Something that elite players can’t even imagine walking away from.
Money is important, but Rugby League has plenty of that these days. So its not all about money. Maybe as a sport we need a change of attitude, a change of direct, and to make the sport easier to stick with.