With the national broadcaster’s sport portfolio being eroded by competitors and new digital rivals circling, Nugent’s successor will take the role at a challenging time, warns Michael O’Keeffe, CEO of Teneo PSG, which includes Teneo Sports, the sports and sponsorship specialists.
“It leaves a big gap in Montrose at a crucial time,” said O’Keeffe of Nugent’s impending departure after eight years in the RTÉ Sport top job.
“Under Nugent, the quality produced by RTÉ remained consistently strong and sport’s importance to RTÉ was underlined by the consistent presence of big GAA games and international soccer and rugby matches in the top-10 most watched shows of the year. Only the Toy Show consistently outperformed live sport, as RTÉ’s coverage dominated the shared national moments.
“It is no secret that RTÉ has lost some key rights and, having seen Nugent talk at various industry events, he was honest about the extent to which RTÉ could compete for and hold onto all its TV sports rights. None of this was Nugent’s fault.”
The station’s new five-year strategic plan, released earlier this month, reiterated RTÉ Sport’s determination to be “the go-to media outlet for sporting events that bring the nation together”.
However, in a recent interview with The Sunday Times, Nugent, who is also RTÉ’s lead rugby commentator, admitted the loss of Six Nations rights to TV3 was a particular blow, and accepted it will not be possible for RTÉ to gather the kind of sports portfolio it enjoyed in the past.
“It (Six Nations) was part of the furniture, and it hurts to lose rights to something of that magnitude.
“If you have a sense that you have a God-given right to the GAA, the Six Nations and all of Ireland’s international soccer, then you are going to be disappointed. It isn’t practical and it isn’t financially sustainable to own all of that at the same time.
“The sports rights business is extremely expensive and it has gotten to a point where — particularly in the UK and the US — people are asking where the value is, and does it get to a point where it is not worth it?”
O’Keeffe says the broadcast rights landscape has changed utterly and is more complex and competitive than ever before.
“TV3’s foray into rugby has been well publicised and eir Sport have a strong rugby, soccer and GAA foothold, while Sky have successfully picked off and held on to GAA Championship rights.
“Nugent’s successor inherits the role at a fascinating and challenging time. A lot has been made of what RTÉ doesn’t have, but it still possesses an enviable suite of sports rights, from horse racing to Olympics to GAA to soccer and much more. Minority sports also present an opportunity for RTÉ in its role as state broadcaster and the remit that comes with this.
“But the way we watch live sport is changing.”
Its strategic plan states that RTÉ will take a “digital first” approach in future, with director general Dee Forbes aiming to “re-imagine RTÉ for the next generation... a generation that has never been without the internet, smart phones, on-demand video services, social media and access to the best programming and content from all over the world.”
However, that re-imagining will have to fend off previously unimagined rivals for sporting rights. The much-anticipated entry of Amazon and Facebook into the Premier League football rights bidding war may not have materialised this month, though two packages remain to be sold, but Facebook tabled a €500m bid for cricket’s Indian Premier League last autumn and the Six Nations is on Amazon’s radar.
“We have ongoing dialogue with a variety of platforms, including Amazon,” Six Nations CEO John Feehan told The Mail on Sunday last month. “We’ve only got 15 games to sell and we think we’ve got the best mix at the moment, but never say never.”
O’Keeffe points to ATP Tennis’s sale of exclusive rights to Amazon from 2019, in a deal believed to be worth over £10m per annum.
“This was Amazon’s first move into live sport outside of US. Amazon had the rights to broadcast 10 NFL games this season on Thursday nights. Facebook also has college basketball and Mexican soccer amongst other sports.
“There is a definite trend. Many broadcast rights experts predict the Big Four — Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple — will pick up more and more content. Digital broadcasters can offer their customers flexibility in viewing. We may also see sports associations like the GAA, FAI and IRFU producing more of its own content.”
Even as threats multiply, O’Keeffe is reluctant to write mainstream TV out of the picture. “Rights holders will most likely look to continue to diversify their broadcast rights deals portfolio, but TV will likely be dominant for some time, as the likes of Sky Sports continue to produce premium sports content that people are willing to pay for.”
RTÉ’s plan promises to “deliver and connect with audiences, regardless of the platforms they choose”.
It remains to be seen, though, if the broadcaster chooses to look to the digital world for a successor when Nugent departs on June 1.