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Opinion

Why isn’t Super Rugby on free-to-air TV?

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Roar Rookie
5th February, 2020
55
3227 Reads

I know my profile here says I love all sports, and I do. However it is impossible to follow them all with the same intensity. Life just gets in the way.

My engagement with Super Rugby over the past decade has been minimal at best, falling away under the increased access to US sports and a deep interest in other domestic sporting competitions.

After receiving a notification late Friday afternoon that The Roar Super Rugby tipping competition is kicking off, I thought I’d get involved in 2020. I have no idea what’s going on in Super Rugby or who plays for who, but I thought my ego will surely make me get involved enough to not embarrass myself.

I have a few friends with decent interest so I thought I will just pick it up and generally plug in to the sport.

As I followed scores of the season opener and naturally watched my rugby tipping career begin in the tragic way it’ll likely finish, I decided to look up the fixtures and line up the first match I will watch on TV. I watch very little free-to-air TV outside of professional sports and my knowledge outside of that space is fairly limited. I picked out Waratahs-Blues. A first round home game for an Australian side, that’ll be on. For sure. Lock it in. My ascension to Super Rugby pundit was about to begin.

I couldn’t find it in the TV guide, and I was completely disappointed. Quick Google check, and no Super Rugby on free-to-air TV.

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It occurred to me at his point maybe this is why my interest waned in the first place. I literally couldn’t watch it. I quickly found out I can watch one game on Network Ten, but it’s delayed. Delayed all the way to the next day, which is the same as being delayed until next year to me.

I know a lot of serious sports fans don’t rely on a free services to access their sports of choice, but many do. Financial reasons, technology reasons, lifestyle reasons, watching it on the old second TV in the spare room, the list goes on. As someone trying to engage with the sport and currently with no Foxtel subscription, it means I have to watch on Kayo, at the pub or not at all.

Suddenly I was less interested, but I was intrigued by this turn of events.

Rob Simmons of the Waratahs looks on

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

I knew the competition had expanded and reduced, which may have indicated it wasn’t going too well? Or maybe they had bitten off more they can chew but the competition was still thriving? Really I have no idea so I have tried to find out a little bit. This sport is not currently my niche. I will likely be corrected all over the place here.

I really just want to know why it’s not on free-to-air TV?

My gut instinct feel on this was it’s likely a contract/rights/posturing issue complicated by the international nature of the competition. It’s almost always the issue. It didn’t take long to discover the broadcasting rights element seems to be the big problem. Mid 2019, Foxtel chief executive Patrick Delaney had this to say in response to questions around free-to-air broadcasting.

“Rugby has only ever been on Fox, Super Rugby was invented by Fox, it has always been on Fox… If they want to put some on free-to-air, that’s fine, but it changes the whole value equation for us.”

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Well that’s for from promising and quite threatening. Foxtel are effectively telling Super Rugby if you jump, we jump. It appears Rugby Australia have had plans to televise more games on free-to-air, reaching people exactly like me. It doesn’t sound like Foxtel are particularly interested.

This line from Delaney made me cringe: “Our subscribers like rugby, it’s all about what value and what price we get”.

I know it’s just business, but that’s really treating it like a disposable stock.

A significant nugget of information was discovering Foxtel were the only bidders for Super Rugby rights back in 2015. Effectively there is the short answer to my question. It’s a bit of a false statement because I am sure other networks were looking, but I am assuming here that in seeking exclusivity and control Foxtel simply overvalued the Super Rugby product and forced likely bidders out the door. That’s the reason I couldn’t watch the game last week.

It also seems this is where there is some friction. As a result Foxtel seem to think Super Rugby is Foxtel’s product. But just because you support something that you also believe benefits yourself doesn’t mean you own it. Then again, apparently Super Rugby was invented by Fox, so maybe they feel a sense of entitlement.

Taniela Tupou of the Reds

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

At this point I became aware the broadcast deal which kicked off back in December 2015 expires at the end of 2020. This Foxtel/free-to-air thing is topical right now.

I find out right now in my fact-finding that Foxtel have withdrawn their offer for the broadcast rights for the upcoming five-year deal beginning in 2021. Well, maybe that’s a good thing for people like me but it’s surely not a good thing for Super Rugby in Australia.

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Rugby Australia chief executive Raelene Castle recently spoke at the 2020 Super Rugby season launch in response to the news and indicated Rugby Australia is searching for a hybrid deal including free-to-air and pay TV portions similar to other Australian football codes. It’s the obvious approach and really all they can do.

It seems Optus have been widely reported as an interested party. However this probably works similar to the current Optus Sports set-up were current existing customers have ease of access but it remains equally inaccessible for many others. It’s more of the same with a limited market watching on.

Castle also mentioned this in regards to the new deal: “That’s why we have gone to market… to step forward and have a serious look at the rights for rugby”.

That’s not entirely true. Foxtel pulled out and forced Rugby Australia’s hand but nonetheless it’s probably a long-term positive.

Brumbies coach Dan McKellar spoke strongly back in May 2019 regarding getting the need to change the current broadcasting landscape. McKellar stated: “Get it on free-to-air, definitely get it on free-to-air… At the moment we’re sort of hidden away. Fox are tremendous in their support of the game but I think free-to-air would certainly be a real positive change”.

Noah Lolesio of the Brumbies during the round one Super Rugby match

(Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

It looks like Super Rugby has been deliberately hidden away. Keeping the product scarce has made people not be able to find it as opposed to searching for where it is hidden. I agree with McKellar here though, it would be a positive. I say that probably because it suits my needs but it also makes sense for the sport in Australia.

So my quick takeaway is this: Foxtel kept Super Rugby on their terms, which were ultimately disadvantageous to the sport’s growth. Super Rugby and many other stakeholders wanted more games on free-to-air TV but all they were really just holding the sentimental ‘give the people what they want’ attitude. Foxtel have said fine, have it your way, you’re on your own.

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So I am happy, it’s likely Super Rugby gets on free-to-air TV. I guess this just poses more questions. Is Super Rugby popular enough? It is sustainable?

A quick look at match attendances didn’t fill me with confidence. I didn’t have much knowledge of Super Rugby crowds prior to looking and I was underwhelmed. Regular season attendances in 2019 for the four Australian sides was 10,450. That is comparatively low compared to the other footballing codes, but the good news is it only dropped one per cent from 2018. It’s a stable support base. Without going into too much detail, the Brumbies appear to be a club struggling financially due to the low numbers with the club publicly discussing the lack of sustainability. It’s these sorts of public outcries I am sure are a concern for bidders watching on.

The great news is Foxtel experienced a ten per cent rise in Super Rugby ratings on Fox Sports from 2018 to 2019. The bad news is this wasn’t enough to convince Foxtel to stay involved, however this also says a bit about Foxtel’s current dire financial situation and does unfairly reflect on the competition to a degree.

According to OzTam, Super Rugby viewership is similar in nature to the A-League, which has had well documented viewership issues.

Reece Hodge of the Rebels

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Now I have just learnt about the World Rugby’s proposed League of Nations and I am intrigued by this and how it could all factor into sweetening an unattractive broadcasting deal.

Everything has just got very muddy and confusing. I just wanted to watch the Waratahs-Blues game but it appears in my ignorance I have stumbled upon a huge and significant issue facing Rugby Australia and the code of rugby union in this country.

If people can’t watch the sport, they can’t engage, but if people are choosing not to watch the sport they are choosing to not engage. A sport with poor viewership and spectator engagement is a tough sell to any broadcaster especially when it’s a sizable investment both financially and in duration.

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Speaking in regards to the struggling attendance last year, NSW Rugby boss Andrew Hore stated: “We have to find a niche in the market and we’re up for the challenge of finding that point of difference”. That is right on the money, it really is the challenge ahead.

Back to McKellar speaking in May last year, he added: “People love the game, it’s the people that are sort of 50-50 that sit on the fence. At the moment they’re on the other side of the fence and we have to bring them back.”

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I am on the other side of the fence, facing the other way and watching something else. I am absolutely interested in peeking over and seeing what it’s all about, hence my effort, but it needed to be easier to see. It appears Rugby Australia are aware of this and are trying to make it happen.

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I was confident a bit earlier regarding Super Rugby on free-to-air TV, but as I have continued to write I am less convinced it’s a smooth or sustainable transition. Any broadcaster will be looking to low-ball Rugby Australia for the reasons outlined above and the terms will likely be harsh.

I started looking into this by typing “is rugby union…” into Google and one the first suggestions was “Is rugby union dying in Australia?”.

I was a bit surprised, but I really don’t know if that is a viable question or not. Is it? It’s not on TV so I can’t really find out.

So the question changes.

Will Super Rugby be on free-to-air TV in 2021? And in what form?