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The awkward question Louis Rees-Zammit's NFL switch poses

By Ian Cameron
Louis Rees-Zammit of Wales looks dejected following the team's defeat during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between Wales and Argentina at Stade Velodrome on October 14, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Louis Rees-Zammit’s transition from rugby union to the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs – if successful – could pose some awkward questions for his former sport.

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While he’s yet to play a down of competitive ‘football’ in his new code, the implications of a successful transition for Rees-Zammit for rugby could be at best problematic and at worst help trigger a significant threat to the sport in the long term.

His venture into American football, a domain vastly different in technique, culture, and commercial scale, presents a fascinating case of athletic adaptability and the global mobility of sports talent. While the vast majority of rugby union fans will be cheering the Welshman on to make the Chiefs’ roster this summer – a huge achievement in itself – the blurring of boundaries between rugby and American football offers very little upside for the former.

Should Rees-Zammit secure a berth on an NFL roster as a wide receiver or running back, his potential earnings could significantly eclipse what rugby can currently offer. With average salaries in the positions between $2.5 million to $5 million annually, the $750,000 he was offered move to Japanese rugby now looks like chump change. It is understood that the Chiefs will pay him a sum in this region as part of the three-year deal he signed with them on Friday. And that’s just for starters, should he reach the top of the tree he could theoretically command a figure that is a multiple of rugby’s highest salaries, where roughly $1.2 million has become a de facto, and rarely achieved, ceiling.

Meanwhile, the highest-paid running back in the NFL – San Francisco 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey – is reportedly earning an average annual salary of $16 million (£12.6 million). The highest-paid wide receiver – Tyreek Hill – is on $30 million per annum as part of a deal that could see him earn $120 million over four years.

Eye-watering figures for even the highest-paid rugby stars.

It is no scaremongering to suggest that the NFL, with its colossal financial clout, could increasingly present an irresistible allure for rugby talents seeking new challenges beyond the 15-man game. Rees-Zammit – and the likes of Christian Wade, Daniel Adongo, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Hayden Smith and Lawrence Okoye before him – are all modern guinea pigs – and to use the parlance of another American sport – “one home run” in a skill position could alter how rugby athletes are viewed forever.

This argument might sound alarmist to you. You might point to Jordan Mailata – the giant former South Syndey Rabbitohs U20s player – who has broken through and is now earning $16 million a year after coming through the IPP programme.

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Jordan Mailata
Jordan Mailata playing U20s for the Rabbitohs – Getty Images

The truth was the same size which opened the door to the NFL had closed the door to rugby league. At 6’7 and 140kg plus [at the time] he was simply too big for a career in the NRL, where he was unable to meet the cardio requirements of the fast-paced 13-man code. “Rugby league requires a mix of aerobic and anaerobic fitness,” said Mailata’s former league coach Michael Maguire in an interview with the Player’s Voice back in 2018. “Attack, defend, get back the 10 metres and so on. And that’s not easy when you’re running around at his size.”

His success – and Jarryd Hayne’s to an extent before him – admittedly haven’t opened the floodgates for the hoovering up of NRL athletes by the NFL.

Yet rugby union can offer the NFL something that league can’t: global reach.

Former NFL punter turned pundit Pat McAfee gave a disconcerting insight on his podcast as to how American Football at large might be viewing the venture: “If we can break through on rugby players becoming NFL guys, then the global expansion of the sport will expedite quickly, because rugby is everywhere, seemingly… If this dude [Louis Rees-Zammit] hits, rugby fans everywhere are going to see the highlights… It’s a copycat league too. If this guy has success, especially with the Chiefs too, you’ll see another 30 players get signed by different teams.”

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This paradigm shift, where rugby union could inadvertently serve as a talent reservoir for American football, legitimately threatens rugby’s long-term sustainability. The potential success of Rees-Zammit in the NFL could set a precedent, encouraging other franchises to mine rugby union for athletic gems, creating a sudden talent drain away from a sport where superstars are already in relatively short supply.

And what happens when rugby’s best are going to try their hand at American football? The eyeballs of rugby fans – inevitably – will follow too.

If ever there was a set of fans that the NFL might covert, it’s rugby (be it union or league) supporters. The overlaps are obvious. Both are violent contact sports played by explosive, big-bodied athletes. Rugby’s more global appeal – however – offers the NFL a platform for expansion, an expansion that has so far alluded the American sport despite its vast financial leverage.

It’s the figurative equivalent of the NFL psychologically ‘little bro-ing’ rugby. While many American football fans barely have a concept of rugby union as a sport, the NFL could plausibly be seen as the pinnacle of achievement for a generation of aspiring rugby players and fans. How soon until it’s not the Finn Russells of the world that young fans want to emulate, but rather the Patrick Mahomes?

Pessimists might argue that it is a process that is already taking place. The fear is that Rees-Zammit’s success could now accelerate it.

Of course on a human level, it’s hard not to want Rees-Zammit to realise his dream. Aside from his athletic abilities, he’s an utterly likeable young man who is chasing his sporting goals very much against the odds.

It’s also about our collective sporting ego. He’s one of our best and we want him to show the world that he can mix it in the planet’s most lucrative sports league.

As Rees-Zammit navigates his new path in the NFL, we, the rugby community will watch closely. We must however acknowledge that his success could come with a hefty price tag.

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