Fox Sports has been a great ally to the fortunes of Rugby Australia, but after 25 years they have decided not to put in a live bid for the next broadcast rights. The blame must lie squarely at the feet of Rugby AU.
Unfortunately, CEO Raelene Castle has been left as the scapegoat for a decision that had been signed off by her board.
Channel Ten was the only serious free-to-air network that put their hand up, having history with the sport, so the question must be asked; why Rugby AU did not accept the Fox offer when it was made and before the rights went to tender?
The answer must be that they thought they would get more financially by going to market and they also wanted to open the game to a wider audience – one which they could not penetrate behind the Foxtel paywall.
Reports are that Optus is the only serious bidder left, which has ongoing implications for the game.
Optus Sport has been a success story for those who follow the English Premier League, with subscription growth at 15 per cent for the past six months for a subscriber base of 825,000.
This play by Optus was plagued by technical issues and a backlash from Fox Sports subscribers, who lost their sport, but after a second renewal of the rights, the EPL is clearly working as a business plan.
At $15 a month to watch the sport you follow, over-the-top (OTT) broadcasting is the best deal in sports – and a model that is here to stay.
If Rugby Australia do go with Optus, they will be getting on the cheap and at far less than Fox was willing to pay. With production costs running at $10 million per year, this cost will be built into the rights. The paywall will get higher to jump over as the percentage of rugby watchers prepared to move phone companies or pay to watch the game is arguably a lot smaller than rusted on EPL supporters.
With no Super Rugby FTA coverage, what have Rugby AU gained by leaving Fox and not coming to an agreement with Ten?
From the outside, the potential move to an OTT platform will be a winner for Optus or a failure for rugby and also sets the tone for other sports’ ambitions for building their own networks.