Do not adjust your set: Rugby pay-per-view is here to stay

For one glorious summer, London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park felt like the centre of the world.

Now the vast site, built at an even greater expense, lies mostly dormant and forgotten to the rear of the nearby Westfields Shopping Centre in Stratford.

Mostly.

Every now and then, a little white coach pulls up at an unremarkable stop separating the two, picking up and dropping off passengers whose business lies inside the park and, more specifically, the International Broadcast Centre.

For over a year now, BT Sport has been beaming out its mountain of sports content from this large, unprepossessing building and it was from here that last night’s coverage of Munster’s home Rugby Champions Cup tie with Saracens owed its genesis.

Last week, it was Leinster at the RDS with the jarring sight of Brian O’Driscoll sauntering around in his civvies and those multi-coloured microphones combining to tell us that the rugby world isn’t what we knew it to be for so long.

Expect more of Mr O’Driscoll and his friends.

Though Sky Sports have an equal amount of live games under the new agreement, both of Munster’s and Leinster’s December European ties will be shown on BT thanks to the latter having called dibs on fixtures with the English clubs.

Titus Hill is the man in charge. A former employee of Eurosport and ITV, Hill’s stewardship of the new station’s rugby coverage very quickly earned plaudits, whether for its live programmes or the ‘Rugby Tonight’ magazine show.

Thousands of Irish sports fans have long been subscribing to BT’s offering via their Setanta packages, but the divvy-up of Rugby Champions Cup rights with BSkyB has added an intriguing layer to the unfolding story surrounding sports TV rights. Such partitioned arrangements are de rigeur in football — think the BBC and ITV for the World Cup or BT and BSkyB with the English Premier League — but the advent of such a business model speaks loudly about rugby’s growing financial muscle.

“There has been a big leap forward, particularly financially,” says Brian Quinn, marketing operations director at Setanta, “Hopefully that money will be put to good use as it goes back into the game. Rugby maybe has just realised that part of its potential.”

How big it is, or can become, remains to be seen. Barry Hearn, the man who made snooker sexy in the 1980s and is now chairman of the Professional Darts Corporation, has often bragged about how the boys throwing tungsten knock spots off every other sport but football in terms of viewing figures.

But then, he would say that. Compare that to John Petters, who told the London Independent recently about his belief that rugby could be a key component in the battle to secure bigger audiences and how he wanted analysts like O’Driscoll to “demystify” it for the masses.

So, how big a slice of the pie is it? “Rugby is big in terms of the make-up of its audience,” says Rob Hartnett of Sport for Business. “My own audience would be primarily business-led so that would be skewed towards people who would have subscriptions and more disposable incomes and choice. Rugby ticks a lot of boxes. That demographic appeal of rugby makes it very important. It will never match soccer in terms of broad mass appeal but a higher proportion of those watching rugby would want to do so from their homes. So, while there will be far more eyeballs on soccer, rugby can be the deciding factor in getting it switched on.”

Quinn acknowledges that your average rugby fan tends to be slightly older and thus have a few more bucks in their wallet, but he echoes the approach of Petters in stressing that there is an obvious need to reach beyond the recognised core support.

“We would be keen to grow the interest in rugby as well,” he explains. “Some rugby coverage in the past has been great if you were an aficionado who understood the game, but not so much if you didn’t, and BT have been very good at doing that.”

It’s a testing balancing act. BT have adopted a deliberately irreverent, less formal style while the input of O’Driscoll in particular in explaining the nuances of the game from their jaw-dropping, multi-million pound studio is a masterclass in how to teach, but not preach, to an audience.

Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been criticism. Craig Doyle will never win over everyone and Austin Healy will always be best served sparingly. But the biggest gripe is likely to be the very fact that watching your province now requires a second subscription. Quinn makes the point that monopoly is never healthy and that competition pushes up standards, both of which are true. Like it or not, the fragmentation of rights is only going to continue thanks to sports seeking top dollar for their product as well as statutory changes.

Ultimately, it says a lot about rugby — a minority sport, even in its major markets — that it carries the cache to attract and carry more than one subscription provider for one tournament and the only question left is whether it represents value for money.

“The Heineken Cup was built into such a success in its near 20-year existence that it got to a point where the people now involved could say this is big and strong and broad enough to roll the dice and do this,” says Hartnett.

“The fact is that people want to see more sport and so we have seen it packaged better and spread out with international soccer games over a week now and even the All-Irelands with two games on a Sunday and a Saturday evening as well now. People might give out about two subscriptions, but a lot of these are the same people who wouldn’t think twice about paying in to see Munster play in Thomond Park, Cork in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Cork City at Turner’s Cross. You can’t expect the best for free. It never has been. We always paid for it through a TV licence, but the increased quality and volume of the entertainment we are getting means that the value is still very much there.”

RUGBY ON TV: WHO HAS WHAT?

Guinness PRO12: Sky Sports and TG4

Aviva Premiership: BT Sport

Top 14: Sky Sports

Rugby Champions Cup: Sky Sports and BT Sport

Guinness (November) Series: RTÉ and Sky Sports

RBS Six Nations: RTÉ and BBC

Ireland summer tours: Sky Sports

2015 Rugby World Cup: TV3

2017 British and Irish Lions tour: Sky Sports


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