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NRL TV rights: Hell hath no fury like a media baron scorned

After suggestions that he was walking away from the game, Rupert Murdoch has thrown plenty of money at the NRL in the new TV deal. (Image: WikiCommons - David Shankbone)
Roar Guru
25th August, 2015
66
1782 Reads

This week saw the release of the Ashley Madison account data, a dating site for married individuals looking for an affair. This has resulted in a few strained marriages around town.

However, there was one marriage coming apart at the seams that has nothing to do with Ashley Maddison, the one between the NRL and News Corp.

The reasons for this marriage separation have been documented enough on this site, and it seems the NRL community are split – those in the pro-News Ltd and anti-Dave Smith crowd, and those in the pro-NRL and happy to finally see Rupert Murdoch on the receiving end crowd.

I’ll try and look at potential suitors for the NRL and their remaining four matches per round available for broadcast. One thing to remember is to separate Foxtel and Fox Sports.

Existing video on demand (VOD)
Twelve months ago where was Stan, Netflix and Presto (a sibling of Foxtel) in the Australian market. By April this year Netflix had over one million subscribers in Australia in 408,000 homes, and is rising. Stan and Presto are well behind with less than 150,000 subscribers combined.

These services are of massive concern to Foxtel, primarily in the movies and drama categories. None have yet to venture into sports. Netflix haven’t shown any interest in sport anywhere else in the world and have stated they have no interest in the NRL.

I think the word Netflix is getting thrown around as the generic term for video on demand operators. I would put Stan as an outside shot, just because of their link with Channel Nine.

Other video on demand
A couple of big brand names are circling Australia and NRL rights may be the perfect launching point. Google, through Google TV and YouTube, in the US have grabbed Willow TV, a couple of MLB games a day, some NBA and UFC.

One thing that YouTube has is global reach and an already existing viewer base. They currently do live simulcasts, with Felix Baumgartner’s free fall jump a couple of years ago attracting eight million live viewers. I have watched Coachella and Glastonbury live via YouTube. The 2015 IPL was also broadcast on YouTube. Subscriber costs can be shared between advertisers and viewers, who can pay per game, month or season.

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One extra benefit is a deal similar to the IPL, where the stream was broadcast into some countries without a fee. So if somebody in the United States wants to have a look at this game Jarryd Hayne has come from they can watch a game live on YouTube, for no cost. An ideal way to spread the rugby league gospel.

The other major name is Amazon Prime. The Top Gear crew were just signed to a £250 million (approximately $535 million) deal with Amazon Prime. That is their way of launching into the UK market. Obviously, they have money to spend. But the question for Amazon Prime is whether they find the Australian market too crowded and therefore decide not to enter. At this stage I’ll say Google has more of a shot than Amazon Prime.

ESPN
The self-proclaimed “World Wide Leader” kicked the NRL tyres five years ago, but nothing came of it. Half a decade later they still have a presence in the country with two channels. The broadcaster has lost the Champions League and will be looking to diversify from it’s now US-centric line-up. Most of their current live sport is during the day in Australia, opening up the prime time spots to the NRL.

While Fox Sports in the US has been spending big over the past few years in an attempt to draw viewers away from ESPN, it would be ironic if the opposite happened in Australia. NRL would like them because they are on the existing sports package on Foxtel, meaning fans can watch the games at the current cost. It might be a nice sport to schedule on late night US TV. Might even get a few tries on the Sportscenter Top 10.

While they currently have no NRL talent on their books, there will be a number of Fox Sports people looking for a job if they choose to pass up the rights. Personally, I have a number of criticisms of ESPN, but it is mostly nothing to do with the quality of their live broadcasts. I think if they are serious and want to do it, they are in with a big shot

beIN Sports
Formerly Setanta, now owned by Al Jazeera and with money behind them. Available on Foxtel, but for an added fee, and also online for a fee. Current line-up is about 90 per cent soccer, and they just stole the Champions League off ESPN. Have a bundle of cash, but their line-up consists of sports they can offer internationally, particularly Asia and the Middle East. Very doubtful they will be interested.

Channel Nine
If push comes to shove, Channel Nine may try and get the remaining games and throw them on GEM and/or bundle them into Stan. Not at all implausible. It will be for less money than the NRL would get from others, but the added advantage of access to every game for everybody.

Channel Ten
May try and buy a game, but realistically they are out of the question. The merger with Foxtel and the much needed injection of funds is still being deliberated.

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Fox Sports
At the moment, getting Fox Sports and the NRL in a room will be like the scene in “Wedding Crashers” where John and Jeremy are arbitrating the divorce between Dwight Yoakim and Rebecca De Mornay’s characters. There have been a number of ex-prime ministers who could tell you what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the Melting Candle, so Smith is playing a dangerous game here.

It seems, though, that Smith has a few brains and the commission is filled with successful people, so there must be something behind their approach.

Foxtel need something that will keep viewers, as well as attracting new ones. Don’t be fooled into how shocked Fox Sports people were, they knew it was coming. They were just shocked at the suddenness of it all. The purpose of Phil Rothfield’s article about a dedicated NRL channel and games on Channel Ten was to build up the fans’ expectations, only for them to be disappointed with Channel Nine getting the coverage. News Ltd knew what was coming.

Fox Sports are trying to play hardball. They need the NRL and I think they will end up paying top dollar for it. It won’t happen today, it probably won’t happen this year, but they will come around.

The NRL have one big bargaining chip they can play – Monday night football. At this stage it’s gone, but they can bring it back, just as long as Fox Sports pay.

As just mentioned, at the end of the day I think Fox Sports will come around. David Smith is going to cop it for the next 12 months. Every referee mistake will be his fault. Every player misbehaving will be his fault. Every little success the AFL has will be a blight on Smith.

Fox Sports will end up paying top dollar, with every game simulcast, and probably with Monday Night Football. They can sell that as a win for themselves. And I think coming out of it will be a new approach to the game from the News Ltd writers, a bit more positive.

ESPN I think are the next best chance. They want a bit of diversification to their channel, and don’t want to be seen as the broadcaster of American sports. They have the international expertise, open time slots, web presence (ESPN3) and a bundle of cash. It all depends how serious they are. News won’t be too upset with this as they won’t lose subscribers.

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Channel Nine would be the third in line. Putting the remaining matches on GEM or Stan would make them very happy. It will reduce the dollars for the NRL though, so maybe not the end result Smith would want.

Personally, I hope that YouTube get the digital rights. They have the international reach that Telstra don’t have, have apps that work on all smartphones and can be accessed at any PC. I doubt this will happen as long as Telstra remain naming rights sponsor.

This all has a long way to go, and will be very interesting to see how it all plays out. Where VOD will be in 6 or 12 months’ time will play a major role here. At the end of it all there will be bruised egos and a few battered reputations. All part of this wonderful sport.