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Welcome competition in the rugby broadcast rights race - and a farewell, for now…

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26th October, 2020
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There’s no doubt that coming into the last week of October without a broadcast rights deal in place for 2021 is less than ideal for Rugby Australia. But developments over the last week or so suggest that whatever deal is done from here is going to be a whole lot better than expected.

The initial reporting a few weeks ago around the Nine Network’s sudden interest in rugby was – I think – met with a healthy amount of scepticism. Why would a network who built its winter sporting viewing base around rugby league, and whose personalities in that sport have never needed an invitation to dump on rugby, now be interested in broadcasting the 15-man code?

Rugby fans in Australia haven’t forgotten the token showings Nine gave in the couple of years they held the international rights between and including the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups.

But was this genuine interest, or was this a classic broadcast negotiation tactic: plant the story of ‘genuine’ interest from a potential rival bidder after meeting for a coffee and a chat and not being politely declined?

And even if there was a bit of faint interest, was this a classic broadcast negotiation tactic of trying to turn that “hmm, maybe” into something more concrete by fleshing out a response in public?

However it came about, the interest was from Nine and is genuine enough that Rugby Australia received a bid.

Early last week, Nine Entertainment Co. used its newspaper mastheads – where have we seen this tactic before? – to confirm that a $30 million bid for the broadcast rights had indeed been lodged with Rugby Australia, with the firm aim of trying to wrest the game away from Fox Sports, the game’s only Australian broadcast partner over the 25-year history of Super Rugby.

The headlines couldn’t scream their one big selling point more obviously: rugby could be on free-to-air TV next year!

Wallabies

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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This in itself was the classic broadcast negotiation equivalent of stacking the supermarket checkouts with chocolate bars and lollies.

But in confirming the offer, Nine also conceded that their bid was as much as ten million dollars lower than the offer submitted by Fox Sports in the weeks preceding. Reports indicated Fox’s bid was somewhere around the $35-40 million range, which is essentially the same as what they paid this year after renegotiations.

Their plan appears to be showing one Super Rugby game per week on free-to-air TV, with the rest stuck away on their subscription streaming service Stan, which would represent an Australian first in terms of streaming platforms expanding into the realm of live sport (Kayo and Foxtel services notwithstanding).

Whether that one game – Saturday night, presumably – is on the ‘main’ Nine channel or one of the digital offshoots isn’t clear, wasn’t outlined, and frankly doesn’t matter. They’re all just numbers on the remote either way.

Further, the formerly Fairfax papers are also reporting that Nine wants all-in for Wallabies Tests as well – both those played in our neck of the woods, and the Spring Tour fixtures that tend to bounce between broadcasters of both the free-to-air and pay-TV models, and whose deals are often done late in the piece. Nine wants to be the home of the Wallabies, at home and abroad. And they want exclusivity, too.

What I’ve found particularly fascinating in all the reporting is that Nine and Fox Sports have bid for the same content from RA: Wallabies Tests, Super Rugby (in whatever form that takes next year and beyond), and the proposed State of Union concept.

Intriguingly, both networks also want the National Rugby Championship, which I don’t mind admitting I had naturally assumed was going to be a casualty of both the negotiations and the global pandemic. For all the talk about national club competition formats, it’s entirely unexpected to see both networks ask for the NRC by name.

Noah Lolesio in action for the Canberra Vikings

The NRC… so you’re saying there’s a chance? (Photo by James Worsfold/Getty Images)

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The Nine development was interesting enough, but Fox Sports seemingly haven’t played all their cards yet.

Already holding something of an advantage with the higher financial offering, the news emerged last week that Foxtel are toying with the idea of making some content on their Kayo platform free to access. The news came to light in the context of their Supercars coverage, but Sydney Morning Herald reporting included the line, “Sources familiar with RA’s rights negotiations confirmed Foxtel had pitched Super Rugby games being broadcast for free on Kayo as an alternative to an offer from Nine Entertainment Co”.

If Nine were going to toss up an offer comprising free and subscription access, this was Fox dishing up the same.

By now, rugby fans in Australia could no longer contain their grin. This was genuine competition, and it’s got a bit to go yet. RA has finally got exactly the competitive tension they dreamed of, and even the competitive tension that Raelene Castle alluded to 12 months ago but effectively paid the price of her job for.

Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess. I don’t think it’s that big a jump from here to see revised offers forthcoming from either party.

Nine could yet offer up more money and a guarantee of the main channel on Saturday nights.

Fox could further sweeten their offer with a free-to-air simulcast partner.

You couldn’t even rule out the two parties coming to a mutual arrangement around content and production sharing.

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I don’t have any inclination which way it’s heading. But I do find it all absolutely and utterly fascinating.

Rugby Australia chairman Hamish McLennan

Rugby AU chairman Hamish McLennan. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

A farewell to The Roar – but definitely not goodbye
In offering belated apologies for my Tuesday column suddenly going on hold at the end of August, I’m afraid I must now confirm that that hiatus will continue for the immediate future.

A condition of my ongoing employment with the ABC – which I’m obviously incredibly grateful for, in these concerning times for the sport media in Australia – means that I’m not able to write for external parties without approval. And while I have had that approval in the past, it was officially removed two months ago. It’s not my decision, and it’s certainly not my choice, but it’s one I have to accept.

And that means that after 12 years, more than 1200 columns and articles, and upwards of four million page views, this is my last column for the time being.

I simply cannot thank everyone associated with The Roar enough for everything they’ve given me over the twelve years. It has provided me with a platform for a literally life-changing career path, and I will be forever grateful to Dan, and to Paddy, Tristan, and Zac before him.

Thanks to all of you as well, for all the comments, discussion, debates, arguments, and interactions over the years. It’s where The Roar comes into its own, and it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable part of my sports writing life.

But while the column is on hold, I will still be around. You may well have noticed that I’ve kept commenting over the last few months, and I will keep doing that going forward. I might not be able to contribute as I’d like to, but I’m still going to contribute in some way. And I’ll certainly remain involved in the panel discussions on Thursdays.

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So sincerely, thank you. It’s not goodbye, but it is a farewell to Tuesdays for now.

And a promise that I’ll be back at the first opportunity.