When was the last time Australian rugby had a week this good?
It was probably some time in 2015, which, with the Wallabies winning the Rugby Championship and making the Rugby World Cup final, and Rugby Australia (then the ARU) earning a near-150 per cent increase to their broadcast earnings, was an outstanding year for the sport.
The three days between Saturday and Monday have been right up there though: beat the All Blacks in Brisbane, then announce Super Rugby is being shown live on free-to-air TV in Australia.
At $100 million for three years, Nine Entertainment’s successful bid for rugby rights may appear short of the previous broadcast windfall of $285 million for five years. But, as interim Rugby AU CEO Rob Clarke was quick to point out, the new deal is worth more than its predecessor from a domestic standpoint. With an option for a further two years with Nine and international broadcast agreements still to be struck, it’s no meagre offering.
Regardless of the monetary value, the real benefit is finally having some live Super Rugby out from behind the paywall. It can hardly be overstated.
Look at every other major Australian domestic competition, and none of them are shown solely on pay TV anymore. While rugby is in a different position to most of its competitors in that Super Rugby commands considerable overseas interest and Test matches produce the bulk of broadcast revenue, having its top franchise tournament hidden away behind a paywall significantly hamstrung the sport’s ability to reach new fans.
That effect was further compounded in recent years by the Wallabies’ struggles. Australian Tests were the only games of top-level rugby available on free-to-air TV, but seeing the national team routinely struggle against the All Blacks and Springboks didn’t exactly make the sport an attractive proposition for local fans.
Given the fates of the country’s franchises in recent years, maybe it’s a slight blessing in disguise that Super Rugby has taken so long to finally escape the paywall.
With South African sides exiting the tournament and the pandemic set to force another instalment of separate competitions in Australia and New Zealand – with the probable exception of some post-season playoffs between the best trans-Tasman teams – new viewers who Nine and Stan entice to rugby next year won’t be greeted by the unwelcome sight of local sides getting thumped by their Kiwi counterparts.
Further to that, the Wallabies’ win on Saturday could do more than provide a short-term boost. It’s a clear sign the side is getting closer to competitive ground against the All Blacks, even if parity is still some way off. But with two Tests against the underprepared Pumas to come, Australia should finish the year with three Test victories on the trot, something they haven’t managed since 2017.
Rusted-on rugby supporters might be well aware of the potential in the crop of emerging youngsters in Australia right now and consider that evidence enough that the game is heading in the right direction, but wins are a far more concrete currency, particularly for prospective new fans.
Win the next two games against Argentina and there will be a genuine positive feeling about the sport, giving Nine some excitement to latch onto as they promote it. That’s far from the worse circumstance in which a new broadcaster could enter proceedings.
While it was Rugby AU CEO Rob Clarke who was all smiles with his Nine and Stan counterparts at yesterday’s announcement, one administrator who deserves considerable credit is his predecessor, Raelene Castle.
It was under her that Rugby AU rebuffed Foxtel’s initial offer to continue their broadcasting arrangement for another five years at the annual price of $35 million. She was criticised for the decision, particularly when the pandemic hit and thrust the organisation into a parlous financial state, but has been truly vindicated with Nine’s final offer coming in at slightly over $33 million per year.
A touch under $2 million a season for free-to-air exposure? Bargain.
As was pointed out on these pages yesterday, it is a shame that most of Castle’s achievements – which also include hiring Dave Rennie as Wallabies coach and improving player development pathways – have borne fruit only after she’s left the organisation. She won’t get as many plaudits because of that, but it doesn’t mean she’s not deserving of them.
That’s not to say the game’s current leadership don’t deserve credit too – far from it. Nine weren’t at the negotiation table pre-COVID, and to drum up proper appetite from a previously disinterested party in the current economic climate is quite the feat.
The new broadcast deal puts Rugby AU back in a secure financial position, even if a major naming-rights sponsor for the Wallabies is still needed. It is, in short, a bit of outstanding news in a year when that’s been all too hard to come by.
Now, much as the Wallabies need to take their momentum from Brisbane into the upcoming two Tests and into next year, it’s on Rugby AU to ensure they make the most of the funds and increased exposure yesterday’s announcement has granted them.