When Jarryd Hayne made the decision to move to the NFL, every football fan was in awe of him.
He became the poster boy for Australian sport: the local kid who made it big in the US.
No one cared that he had left Parramatta, or the NRL. After all, it was his dream. Right?
But, after just a season, Hayne announced he was pulling the pin. He said he had a new dream, to win gold at the Olympics.
Playing rugby sevens for Fiji.
“I don’t think he could have chosen a worse thing to do,” says sports celebrity brand expert associate professor Melissa Johnson Morgan from the University of Southern Queensland.
Morgan has spent years studying management and enterprise, and has written a number of papers on what shapes and affects a sportsperson’s brand and image.
“He’s muddied the waters very much for himself,” she told Business Insider. “He’s selling that he’s got his eye on the game and that he is committed, but that’s not what is playing out. That’s not what people see.”
Morgan ran through Hayne’s journey, from moving to the NFL to now, and explained why she thinks it’s going to be difficult for him to reestablish his brand as trustworthy if he plays for Fiji’s rugby sevens team.
“In Australia he was doing exceptionally well… but he got to the stage where people considered him to be in that tall poppy league,” Morgan says.
“Then he moved to the NFL, which could have work really well for him, because it put him back into underdog territory.
“His merchandise sales in America were huge. They were in the top five in jersey sales, and in the top 50 for NFL merchandise, and he barely played a season.
“He essentially got fans to accept him in a whole other sport. He tapped into a whole other country and got a whole group of people following the NFL because of him. That did extraordinary things to his brand because it meant he was seen as this person who was committed and dedicated to doing whatever it took to follow his dream.
“I think the fans have a problem now because he’s erratic. They followed his progress there, now they don’t know what to relate to. They don’t know what to engage with.
“I think the danger now is that it’s the same tagline: ‘I’m following my dream, this is always what I wanted to do’.
“The backflip in this case is that he’s not only changing sports, changing codes, but he’s changing countries again.”
Fool me twice, shame on me
Morgan says the problem with that, for Australians, is that we bought into it first time so we’ll be reluctant to do so again.
“They think he’s parachuting into the best Sevens team in the world, without having done the time,” she says.
“And, I think, Australians will always been confronted by the fact that he was born and raised in Australia, but now identifies as Fijian.
“He’s become bit of a risk.”
Morgan says the decision to play sevens has contradicted his “dream to play NFL” and it’s likely done damage to his brand credibility.
“I think opting out of the NFL, probably prematurely, and then saying he really wanted to do was go to the Olympics, and was prepared to change codes — his product is now so inconsistent that it runs the risk of being quite diluted as a brand.
“The unfortunate part of that for a sportsperson is that there is always someone else. Especially going into an Olympic year, there is going to be no shortage of heroes to chose from, from a sponsor’s point of view.
“The one thing he has going for him is that he is an incredible athlete. That ticks one really big box because you can expect lots of glory moments. But he violated that in this case because even if he does go to the Olympics, he’s sort of damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
“If he plays for the Sevens and they win, they’ll say he cost someone else their spot. If he goes and they lose, they’ll it’s because of him.
“And if he doesn’t make it at all, people will call him a ‘sell out’.
“I don’t think he could have chosen a worse thing to do.
“He didn’t do it to join an Australian team. He didn’t do it to defend whatever sport he was in. People have a lot of questions about what right he has to do that.
“Also … he’s parachuting into a situation where it could be the first Olympic gold that the country ever wins. It looks very selfish.
“And if he wins a gold medal I think it will do him more harm than good. If I was just looking at it from a marketing perspective, I would be doing everything I could to keep him away from the Olympics.
And if he ends up playing for Fiji long-term, Morgans says “you really have to wonder what future (he has there)”.
“It’s not a huge market for him.”
He could have started a new genre of sports players
Had he not left the NFL, Morgan says Hayne he had the opportunity to be part of a new genre of sports player.
“He was able to morph into a new sport, and morphed his brand. It was quite contemporary,” she says. “It was verging on being a successful non-sport defining brand.”
But now that he’s moved on Morgan says it’s unlikely his brand will bounce back to the height it was at the start of the NFL season.
“I think he underplayed the NFL card big time. He could have spent another year easy in the NFL.
“I think generally Australians particularly identify with sport because of the whole underdog thing: the challenge, the battle. But I also think I think that Australians are highly critical of their sport stars.”
She says most Aussies will be most disappointed because he’s given it up for Fiji.
As a point of comparison, Morgan says an athlete like Israel Folau was able to successfully code-hop without backlash because he remained in Australia.
“Hayne … asked Australians to go to America with him and they went. They got on board, they supported the NFL in general.
“Israel Folau put the hard yards in. He trained and tried to get selected. I think Australians will find it exceptionally arrogant that Jarryd Hayne has turned up a month before the Olympics and said: ‘By the way, I want to play.’
There’s only one way out, and it’s not great
Morgan expects Australians will be wary of what he says now: “[They’ll] remain fairly cynical of him.”
“He’s an incredible athlete so it’s quite possible he has a career ahead of him in some Australian codes. But will he earn as much money as he could have? No, I don’t think so.
“I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if he bows out of sevens gracefully, and makes a big deal of stepping aside for someone else, and comes back to Australia to sign with a league club.”
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