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Rugby on Indian TV: So long, and thanks for the memories

As always the All Blacks are likely to be the team to beat in 2019. (Photo: AFP)
Roar Guru
7th February, 2016
36
2818 Reads

This weekend, the Six Nations kicks off a new four-year cycle of international rugby. There is a palpable excitement in the air as the Northern Hemisphere heavyweights look to atone for their rather embarrassing World Cup and start afresh – it looks like we have something new to look forward to.

However, for this Indian rugby fan, the excitement has been dulled with the realisation of one of his worst fears: that there will be no more rugby on Indian television.

Rugby on Indian TV always existed on fragile ground, and there was always the nagging feeling that this season will be the last, that the broadcasters will finally run out of patience with this sport that finds so few takers here in the subcontinent. And that time has come now.

Here is the lowdown on the Indian sports broadcasting network: as with the entire sports environment in India, Indian sports television is dominated by one sport – cricket. But over the past few years, possibly sensing how monolithic it is becoming, the market has been encouraging other sports too.

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Top of the list is football, the one sport that is best equipped to challenging the hegemony of cricket. European leagues, especially the Premier League and La Liga, are immensely popular among youngsters, and one can sense a paradigm shift in the popularity stakes.

Along with that, many Indian ventures in various sports are aggressively publicised – foremost of these being the indigenous sport of kabaddi (which is, to be overly simplistic, rugby without the football), along with hockey (a bid to recapture former glory), tennis and badminton. And of course, there is the Indian Super League: football’s hackneyed answer to the IPL. (Although here I must add, every one of these sports leagues has been styled on the IPL, which creates its own problems, but that is an article for another day).

There are three main competitors in the market – the Star Sports network (the same which has its logo plastered on the Indian cricket team’s jersey, you viewers may have noticed when we toured recently), the Ten Network (the Sick Man of Indian TV), and the Sony network (the new kid on the block, so to speak).

The Star network, formerly the ESPN-Star network, has rights to the Premier League, as well as all the new Indian leagues in football, hockey, tennis, badminton and kabaddi, and naturally all cricket matches involving India.

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However, it does not have the big fish, the IPL, which is Sony’s crown jewel. Sony also has the NBA and NFL, but more on that later.

Now, where does rugby fit into all this? For years, the only rugby which was on television was the World Cup, and this was no different until 2011. But the 2011 edition changed everything, apparently.

The World Cup was broadcast by Neo Sports, a network which I didn’t mention before and is now as good as gone, and it’s safe to say that it was a resounding success, not just in terms of quality but also appeal to Indian audiences. For what it’s worth, it also introduced me to the sport.

And so the next year, when Sony decided to dabble in sports with their new channel called Sony SIX (what did I say about cricket), they needed some filler to occupy the airwaves until they found some truly marquee attractions. Rugby provided them with just that. Partnering with Setanta Sports, they got rights to broadcast the Six Nations, two Super Rugby matches per week, and the Rugby Championship.

However, it was always a tenuous balance. Rugby matches never had the top priority. For example, the 2013 Six Nations decider between Wales and England (won 30-3 by Wales) was not broadcast. Later that year, the final Lions Test match was also not shown live because of some badminton tournament.

The absolute nadir was when the 2014 Rugby Championship match between Argentina and the All Blacks was not shown because of the Karnataka T20 Premier League. Yes, we have T20 leagues for each state.

But things all changed when Sony got their hands on the NFL last year. Having already snared the NBA, Sony now controlled the burgeoning American sports market. They now had their priorities clear.

Yet, rugby had one last chance to salvage its situation – the Rugby World Cup. While Sony SIX did announce that it would broadcast all matches, it’s hard to say just how much of an impact this edition had, although it was arguably a better tournament than in 2011.

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The newspapers were certainly very quiet this time around. While Japan’s heroics got a mention, reportage of the World Cup was sporadic at best. A couple of mentions I remember right now were a tiny snippet about Ma’a Nonu’s 100th Test match, and a preview of the final. There was hardly any news on the TV outlets pertaining to the World Cup.

And so the World Cup came and went, and in came the NFL. Along with that, Sony announced a partnership with ESPN, and the launch of a new channel – given the innovative name of Sony ESPN. This was back in January.

The signs were there at that time that this was the death knell for rugby. In its promos for the new channel, and for the new year, rugby was conspicuous by its absence. There was football, IPL, tennis, UFC, NBA, and NFL, but no mention whatsoever of rugby.

And confirmation came a few days back when it was officially announced that the Six Nations would have no TV coverage in India. As a final insult, when the Six Nations kicks off, Sony SIX will be broadcasting the Oxigen Masters Champions League or some such thing, basically a T20 league for retired cricketers.

And so ends a tumultuous relationship between rugby and Indian TV.

Personally I’m glad that I was able to follow the entire previous four years on TV, despite the odd inconvenience, but it still feels sad that I’ll no more get to see international matches and Super Rugby on the TV – especially Super Rugby which, with the addition of the Jaguares, had me excited.

More than that, the real tragedy is that the absence of rugby on TV may result in rugby missing out on potential converts to the game. While the Rugby World Cup may have aroused the interest of some youngsters, only a sustained presence on the telly can keep them interested and truly bring them round to the game they play in heaven.

Plus, while it isn’t the end of the world for fans like me, since the Internet and live streaming (and the Roar) ensures that I won’t be completely cut off from the sport, the average person who watched the Rugby World Cup may not be so inclined to stream a sport he doesn’t fully understand, along with the fact that Internet speeds over here aren’t exactly conducive to streaming.

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And a final thought that I’d just like to leave: there cannot be a shadow of a doubt that the fact that Sony earned the rights to the NFL put paid to any hopes of rugby being broadcast. Isn’t that indicative of the global sporting landscape as a whole, as the NFL looks to expand beyond its borders and compete in untapped markets with sports like rugby? Rugby just cannot deal with the PR and the financial might that the NFL has. And it’s proven to be the case here too.

Still, I hope later in the year rugby makes a comeback. Perhaps at the time when it’s needed most – the Rugby Championship – it will spring up again, perhaps on a different network. And maybe, just maybe, it will get enough of a fan-base in this country to not be just a filler sport that is low priority for TV channels.

Till then though, rugby will be off Indian Television.

In Memoriam : Rugby Union (and the one time they hilariously showed an NRL match by mistake, instead of Super Rugby) on Sony SIX.

It was a rough time, but a time worth cherishing. So long, and thanks for the memories.

Addendum: for the rugby league fan in me, nothing much has changed, since league was never on TV here anyway, except for the aforementioned Sharks-Titans game. The World Cup was broadcast in 2013, and probably will return in 2017, but otherwise all NRL, State of Origin and international League will be on the Internet. So nothing different there. Up the Chooks!

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