Rugby league fans may be in for a big shock next month when they turn on their televisions expecting to watch coverage of one of the biggest matches in the game's history. Many supporters remain unaware the first fixture of the historic NRL season-opening double header in Las Vegas – Manly up against South Sydney – won't be available on free-to-air television.
The match, to kick off 1.30pm (AEDT) on March 3, will be seen exclusively on Fox Sports, with Channel 9 left out in the cold. Both Channel 9 and Fox will broadcast the day's second match between the Roosters and Broncos, kicking off two hours later.
The NRL entered into an agreement with Fox Sports allowing them exclusive rights to the Manly-Souths game in a move that is said to have angered Channel 9. The deal with Fox ensured both games of the double header would be broadcast throughout America on the Fox Sports 1 channel.
Unless Australian league fans have access to pay-TV or wish to visit a licensed premises, they will miss witnessing the first premiership match played outside of Australia or New Zealand. Given they have exclusive rights to game one, Fox Sports executives are confident of challenging record viewing figures.
But experienced media analyst Steve Allen warns the NRL has cost itself an even greater audience by siphoning the first game off to Fox. He told Yahoo Sport Australia: "As you would know… follow the money.
"Given the blend of who pays what in the telecast rights, naturally the NRL would bend a little - as much as they could afford politically - towards Foxtel. There will undoubtedly be an outcry and backlash from supporters, although the majority of pubs, in particular in Sydney, will relish it.
"This move, however, will affect overall viewing audiences, especially for Nine. It will limit what they might have achieved. It is a poor strategy for NRL."
But NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo insists the big picture – gaining exposure through Fox Sports 1 in America – overrides any concerns on the home front. "It’s a pretty big deal for our fans – it’s very exciting for the sport," he said.
"We’ve previously had NRL games shown on Fox Sports in America – but this will be the first time we’ve had games shown live in primetime on Fox Sports 1. To get a game of NRL in primetime in America with our partnership with Fox Sports, getting that promotion in America is huge for us.
"It gives us exposure and reach for the game to sports-loving Americans. We are confident that when they see our product, the NRL is something they will have an interest in following."
Sign up to our newsletter and score the biggest sport stories of the week.