The NRL’s efforts to bring fans closer to live action have reached new levels with the announcement of a scheme that would allow fans to purchase a $22 cardboard cutout of themselves that would then be placed in a seat at their team’s home stadium.

After the competition resumed on Thursday night in a fan-less Suncorp stadium, the league on Friday confirmed plans for the Fan In The Stand initiative, which will enable a few hundred diehard fans to “watch” their team play “live, from inside the stadiums”.

“For just $22 plus GST, NRL members and rugby league fans can have their photo printed on a 100% recyclable cut-out and placed in their team’s current home venue,” a press release stated. A $1 donation will be made from every purchase towards the Gotcha4Life Foundation.

Strict biosecurity measures introduced in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic exclude fans for now, although the NRL has set an ambitious target date of 1 July to welcome back at least a limited number.

That idea has been met with some resistance, with state governments saying it is too soon to consider and the Australian Medical Association branding it “absurd and dangerous”.

In the absence of real fans on Thursday night, several cardboard cutout figures sporting black suits and XXXX boating hats were placed in the stands at Suncorp stadium, as the NRL became the first major Australian sport to get back under way after the coronavirus shutdown.

More cardboard fans can be expected in the coming weeks, with the latest initiative to be rolled out in stadiums this weekend, before the concept ramps up with more fans able to take part in next week’s round four.

“We wanted to make sure the lifeblood of the NRL, our members and fans, had the chance to pull on their jerseys, don their club colours and support in a really fun way,” the NRL’s head of marketing, Peter Jarmain, said. 

“I know the players and clubs will appreciate the support, even if the fans aren’t able to shout, celebrate and jump around for the tries and hits as they usually would.”

The absence of fans has presented the NRL with a challenge to recreate an atmosphere inside stadiums akin to a normal match day experience.

The league will continue to play music during breaks in play in an effort to do so, while a number of players have selected specific tracks to be played should they score a try over the weekend.

Broadcasters have also attempted to address the void created by the lack of fans, and on Thursday they piped recorded crowd noise through to their coverage of the Broncos v Eels game.

Controlled from an off-site location, both Channel Nine and Fox Sports – the NRL’s broadcast partners – followed in the footsteps of Germany’s Bundesliga by using augmented crowd noise to reflect fans’ reaction to the flow of the game.

“Nine has partnered with Australian company ‘aFX’ to deliver a live augmented crowd audio experience to bring the big game feel back to your TV,” a Nine spokesperson said. “It will allow fans at home to hear the roar of genuine NRL fans from each venue as they ride the highs and lows from the comfort of their couch.”

With so little live sport back up and running, Thursday’s resumption game, won 34-6 by the Eels, was a huge success. Reportedly available to watch to 300 million people worldwide, in Australia the game attracted the NRL’s biggest TV audience for a regular season game in more than six years with a combined total of 1.273 million people tuning in across both networks.

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