Al-Jazeera the unlikely saviours for French rugby league?

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While rugby league in Australia was hailing a new era in the sport’s history with the advent of the independent commission, a momentous moment was also occurring in France.

On February 8, the French Federation of Rugby 13 announced a major three-year television deal between France’s sole Super League club Dragons Catalans, and Al-Jazeera Sport, a new entrant in the domestic French television market.

The deal also includes coverage of the NRL and State of Origin, and is a significant income source for French rugby league. Previous deals with Canal+ and Orange TV saw the FFR pay production costs or receive no profit at all for the promotion and televising of the sport.

This new agreement presents a major shift for the game. Hopefully the perceived lack of respect for the sport in high places, especially the media, can now begin to dissipate.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera Sport channel is resource rich, having already snared major European football coverage, and now provides rugby league in France with significant opportunities for the future.

The agreement was signed off by the Deputy Director of Al-Jazeera Sport, Charles Bietry. Bietry is no stranger to rugby league as he was head of Paris Saint-Germain FC Omnisport between 1992-98. PSG partnered with rugby league to launch the club into the inaugural Super League season in 1996.

Though it soon became a failure for the club, Bietry remained a fan of the game and commented how good rugby league was as a television sport, comments he reiterated again in a recent interview for L’Independent, a major southern French daily.

How fitting that all these years later, rugby league has been presented with the opportunity of a lifetime courtesy of Bietry. Dragons Catalans is seen by many as the flag bearer of rugby league in France, and has led a revival for the sport in many areas. Notably, television and print media coverage has increased, especially in its traditional markets of Aquitaine, Languedoc-Roussillon, and Provence.

The Catalans-led revival has also seen a rise in interest for the national team, that has resulted in France hosting pool games for the upcoming Rugby League World Cup in 2013. The national team, commonly known as Les Chanticleers (The Roosters) have also made a re-appearance on French free to air television in the last couple of years, along with the domestic Elite One Championship and cup finals.

New clubs, old clubs reborn, and the rise of the game in the school system have also been notable features of French rugby league’s resurgence.

With participation numbers projected to reach 50,000 by 2014, the next logical step would be for Elite One to come under Al-Jazeera Sport’s umbrella. Such a scenario could be possible if French rugby league envisaged an Australian-style independent commission.

Currently the domestic league is very much village controlled, with the exception of a few larger centres like Toulouse, Perpignan, Montpellier and Avignon. Television income could attract new investment and interest in the game from larger French cities where rugby league was once popular, in Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, and even Paris.

With such a history, rugby league could once again establish a foothold into the minds of the French sporting public.

Whether you see it as luck, with the advent of so many content-starved digital and cable channels, the game must take advantage of this opportunity in what was once an important rugby league market. Al-Jazeera Sport’s coverage of Dragons Catalans may just be the start of a new dawn for rugby league in France.

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