The price is rights – rugby league’s future on tevelsion

ANYONE who happened to glance at The Australian’s ‘Business Review’ section on Thursday could have been forgiven for thinking rugby league had gone back in time 20 years when they read the headline “NRL clubs threaten breakaway over TV deal”.
First, a quick recap: Back in August, the world’s premier club competition trumpeted a $1billion, five-year rights deal with free-to-air broadcaster Nine and subscription channel Fox Sport which they claimed would “secure the future of the sport.”
The upshot from the agreement was four live games a week – up from two and including the premium Saturday evening slot – available to those without pay TV, control of the schedule being back in the hands of the NRL, a huge influx of money into the game and no doubt much champagne cork-popping and self-congratulatory back-slapping at League Central.
Few would doubt the benefits were clear to see. Well, unless your name is Rupert Murdoch, of course.
Unsurprisingly, Fox were somewhat irked by the deal which weakened their ability to tempt viewers to sign up to their services with the promise of a large amount of exclusive live rugby league.
The News Corp-owned media in Australia went on the attack and NRL CEO Dave Smith, who has since stepped down, was the target of their ire. There were even rumblings of a breakaway competition due to some clubs being unhappy with the new TV deal, even prior to the aforementioned article last week.
(At this point it is probably worth mentioning The Australian is one of those News Corp-owned outlet, so cynics may suggest this was a bit of mischief making on their part. Perish the thought…)
However, the fact remains no pay TV contract has actually been signed over the four remaining matches each week Nine will not be showing, with the talk being Fox could show all eight games a round, simulcasting Nine’s games and thereby reducing the costs to the free-to-air network.
Added to this is the possibility of Nine, who are looking to cut costs, selling off the Saturday night game they acquired – indeed, the Daily Telegraph reported Nine CEO David Gyngell was happy to give up that game and only acquired it to prevent any of their free to air rivals getting a share of the TV rights.
Now riding into the fray have come Optus, who were key players in the Super League War and are interested in snapping up the NRL’s digital rights, as well as possibly the pay TV rights Fox so covet.
Once again, the various News Corp organs are ratcheting up the pressure on the NRL. Nevertheless, the fact remains no-one benefits the longer this all drags on without a conclusion being reached.
Back here in the UK, the rights picture is somewhat clearer, with Murdoch’s Sky Sports securing exclusive coverage of Super League until at least the end of 2021 after forking out £182million for the privilege last February.
What was interesting about the timing of the deal is that it came just under three years before the current contract was due to expire, no doubt to head off any possible bid from BT Sport, who have emerged as a credible rival to Sky’s dominance of the UK sports rights market.
The deal was widely welcomed, especially as each Super League club would receive £300,000 apiece within weeks of the contact being agreed.
However, Wigan Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan was one of the dissenting voices, feeling the competition had sold itself short – despite confessing he voted in favour of the deal.
Whether that proves to be the case or not, only time will tell. But of more pressing concern might be the future of rugby league on free-to-air television, particularly with the BBC confirming they are seeking to make £35million of savings to their sports rights budget.
It is likely Formula One, darts and snooker are the sports in line for cutbacks, with the contracts for coverage of F1, the BDO World Darts Championship and World Snooker’s three premier events – the World Championship, UK Championship and Masters – all expiring in the next three years.
Could there be knock-on effect for rugby league though? Despite the fact many perceive the BBC to treat league as little more than a curious folk game played by northern oiks, the Corporation has a history of covering it going all the way back to the Challenge Cup finals of the 1950s.
The Super League Show, which now receives a national broadcast rather than being confined to the regions, is due to continue until at least 2020 under the current deal, as is the BBC’s live Challenge Cup coverage.
Where the coverage might take a hit is the international game. The BBC have the rights to all of England’s games at next year’s Four Nations final, along with the final, and the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, which will again be shared with subscription channel Premier Sports.
After that though, the future might be considered uncertain. The RFL clearly value the exposure free-to-air coverage bring though, with the Challenge Cup final remaining as one of the events which must be made available to non-subscription channels under the Ofcom Code on Sports and Other Listed and Designated Events.
Would another free-to-air broadcaster take over coverage of rugby league in the UK though? ITV have barely covered the sport on a national basis, which would leave Channel 4 and Channel 5 as the other options – neither of which have ever seemed to show an interest either.
Although no-one is talking about it at present, it is an issue the RFL may have to face up to sooner rather than later.

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