5 Min Read
CAMPBELLTOWN, Australia (Reuters) - The numbers were modest and the hour a lot less sociable than in California but Australian NFL fans had themselves a proper Super Bowl party in the hometown of San Francisco 49ers punt returner Jarryd Hayne on Monday.
Australia has traditionally had one of the highest viewing figures pro rata for the Super Bowl outside the United States with some 200,000 out of a population of 23 million tuning in for the 2014 showpiece.
The NFL received huge exposure Down Under last year when Hayne made the audacious decision to cut short his career as one of the biggest stars in the country's National Rugby League (NRL) and head stateside to play for the 49ers.
And if the anecdotal evidence of Monday at the Western Suburbs Leagues Club in Leumeah is anything to go by, it has also had an impact on the NFL's reach even when he is not playing.
"I've been a fan for about two years but I have noticed a big increase in interest mostly because of Jarryd Hayne," said Izac Talanoa who, like Hayne, has his roots in the large local Pacific Islander community.
"It's been a massive influence because he only started out here and now he's over in the big leagues."
Some were already waiting outside for the club to open at 9.30 a.m. so they could grab a seat in front of the big screen and some 200 had assembled by kickoff an hour later, a four-fold increase on last year's turnout according to staff.
Pizza, foot-long hot dogs, corndogs, peanuts and buckets of American beers at knockdown prices all helped bridge the 7,000 miles between a sunny Monday morning in southwest Sydney and Super Bowl Sunday in Santa Clara.
The smattering of NFL shirts showed a variety of allegiances but they were worn largely by the cognoscenti and there were far more showing their support for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton than those in Hayne's number 38 shirt for the 49ers.
Swathed in an outsize black Newton shirt, Tom Matahau said he had been a 49ers fans since the 1980s but his enthusiasm for the early starts required of the dedicated NFL fan Down Under had been rekindled by Hayne's stateside adventure.
"I got up to watch him play, for sure," he said.
"There's definitely a lot of pride around here, even if it's still pretty much an NRL town."
Matt Parker would also count himself among that hardcore and told of once having shelled out $300 to watch his beloved Eagles in Phildelphia.
The 25-year-old "tradie", the local term for a blue collar worker, had been somewhat skeptical about Hayne's bid to play in the NFL and pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
"Most Aussies that have made it before have been punters or come through the college system," said Parker, who backs the Eagles because a picture of one of their players was on the box of the console game that first got him into the sport.
"I was a little surprised he made it, I knew he'd give it a red-hot go but he was competing against guys who have been playing gridiron all their lives."
Parker, whose enthusiasm for American football extends down to college level, was looking forward to the opportunity to take in some live action in August when the Cal Bears take on the University of Hawaii in Sydney.
A good turnout for the NCAA opener at the 80,000 capacity Olympic Stadium will only encourage those in the NFL hierarchy, such as executive vice president of international Mark Waller, who view Australia as a potential host country for the Pro Bowl.
Happily for the NFL internationalists, Hayne said on Monday his adventure was not yet over and he would be back in the U.S. in March stronger and more versatile, looking to add to his eight appearances in a 49ers shirt.
That can only be good news for the league in what has always been a sports-mad nation, even if some of Hayne's fans have not yet embraced the sport as whole.
"There's a lot of people saying 'why are you going to watch the Super Bowl when Jarryd Hayne's not in it?'," said Jamie Hay, who was taking in the game before working the night shift at a poultry processing factory.
"Bloody bandwaggoners," he grinned, turning his attention back to his beer and the action on the big screen.
Editing by Ian Ransom