It is a supreme irony there have been renewed calls for South Africa’s expulsion from Super Rugby at the same time that Rugby Australia’s negotiations with the broadcaster, Fox Sports, seem to have terminally broken down. The fact of the matter is that if any country was to be expelled from Super Rugby, it would not be South Africa, but rather the sick man of Sanzaar, Australia.
It is South Africa, lying in the rich European timezone, which brings the broadcast gold to Sanzaar, while Australia’s contribution is shrinking. Having South Africa in Super Rugby creates a geographically undesirable competition, but New Zealand would never sever its historic links with the Republic, which are so important for developing Kiwi players for Test rugby.
New Zealand and South Africa have already completed negotiations with domestic broadcasters for 2021 to 2026 and are now watching events unfold in Australia with interest. They must be alarmed by what they see.
Fox Sports has been RA’s principal broadcast partner since the game went professional in the mid-1990s, creating Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship (previously the Tri Nations tournament). But when Fox Sports offered RA only $20m a year ($37m a year less than the current deal) as part of a new agreement, as much a reflection of the pay TV network’s own financial problems as much as Super Rugby’s plummeting ratings, RA CEO Raelene Castle decided to take the broadcast rights to the open market.
This move angered Fox Sports executives who have reportedly decided to walk away from their 25-year partnership with RA. If this is the case, it leaves RA with only one other known bidder for the broadcast rights – telecommunications company Optus, which has reportedly offered RA $30m a year, which is still chickenfeed.
But if Fox Sports is out of the running, why would Optus even pay that paltry amount? Whether RA receives $20m a year or $30m, it still will not be sufficient to stop the exodus of Australian players to Europe and Japan, which will further dilute the quality of Australia’s four Super Rugby franchises. New Zealand and South Africa, too, are starting to lose players in significant numbers to overseas clubs, but they have more depth than Australia, which remains in a comparatively weaker position.
RA has indicated it wants to finalise the new broadcast deal by the end of next month, but before it can do that it has to sort out what is happening with the premier club competitions in Sydney and Brisbane, particularly the Shute Shield in Sydney. It is RA’s preference to bundle club rugby, Super Rugby and Test rugby into one package, but the problem is neither RA nor the NSWRU own the Shute Shield.
The re-instituted Sydney Rugby Union currently has a deal with the Seven Network, which shows one Shute Shield game live each week on 7Two, but this arrangement costs the SRU $300,000 a season, paying Seven $250,000 a year for broadcasting and advertising and $50,000 to production company Club Rugby TV. Meanwhile, Fox Sports has unexpectedly offered to broadcast the entire competition from this year onwards, throwing the cat among the pigeons.
How did RA and the NSWRU lose control of such an important grassroots competition? The answer lies in part in RA’s quixotic dream of establishing a third-tier competition to rival New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup and South Africa’s Currie Cup. The establishment of the National Rugby Championship – a development competition involving seven Australian teams and one from Fiji – in 2014 left clubland feeling increasingly unappreciated and neglected.
It is ironic that the Shute Shield, which so often feels unloved by the rugby hierarchy, has become such a crucial bargaining chip in the broadcast negotiations.
It remains to be seen whether Fox Sports has actually walked away from rugby or whether it is just trying to exert pressure on RA to accept its initial offer and whether Optus is indeed the only other potential player in the brave new world of digital communications.
What matters at the end of the day is not just the commercial value of any new broadcast agreement, but the quality of the coverage. If Optus secured the broadcast rights, rugby would be in danger of losing a lot of Foxtel subscribers, but at least it would be a new start for a code that needs an opportunity to re-invent itself. After some well-documented teething problems, Optus’s coverage of European football has been reasonably good, which is encouraging.
One thing is certain, if RA fails to secure a lucrative broadcast deal, Australia’s voice around the Sanzaar table will become more and more muted. As they say, whoever has the gold makes the rules – and that certainly is not Australia.