Rugby Australia keen for free-to-air and pay-TV combo deal, says Castle

by Iain Payten

Chief executive Raelene Castle says Rugby Australia are pushing for a similar free-to-air and pay-TV "combination" deal as the NRL and AFL in their next broadcast rights agreement.

Castle was speaking at the launch of the 2020 Super Rugby season on Thursday, which was kicked off in a different format than usual via a one-hour TV special on FoxSports, which featured crosses with the Super Rugby teams in country regions, and interviews with new Wallabies coach Dave Rennie and the CEO.

But the launch of the 2020 season was also set against the backdrop of Foxtel management reportedly having withdrawn their offer for the broadcast rights over the next five years, and FoxSports Rugby department having recently made more personnel cuts, including long-term presenter Nick McArdle and commentator Drew Mitchell.

Castle said Rugby Australia had elected to go to market to explore potential new bidders for rugby's broadcast rights, and that for the first time in the 25-year history of professional rugby, there is an interested party that's not FoxSports.

That party has been widely reported as telco giant Optus.

Castle said she hoped having competitive tension will be able to help rugby achieve the best possible outcome.

"That’s why we have gone to market. We believe we have more than one party that is prepared to step forward and have a serious look at the rights for rugby,” Castle said.

"That will be the first time in 25 years that we have managed to have a competitor involved in the process.

"That’s a very normal process that goes on in all sports rights deals. Certainly all the other major codes go through that competitive process and that’s what drives the best outcome for them ultimately.

"We have a great partner in Fox and they have been amazing supporters of us for 25 years .. and they will continue to work closely with us in developing this year and we are certainly hoping they come to the table with some other bidders.”

While there have long been calls for Super Rugby to have a free-to-air presence, FoxSports have historically paid top dollar for rugby but on the condition of exclusivity.

Castle said the desire was to try and cut a deal that will get Super Rugby on free-to-air and pay-TV, like the NRL and AFL.

"It’s very complex. People think it is just about the (dollar) number but it’s not,” Castle said.

"Probably the three main things are: one - the number is obviously crucial and that’s how all sports survive in the professional era.

"The second thing is access, so how can we expose Super Rugby more readily to more people more often.

"So whilst we have had a great relationship with Fox and they’ve done great things for Super Rugby, there’s no doubt the combination that’s proven to be successful in an NRL/AFL combination is where you have some free-to-air access and some behind the paywall access.

"That’s something we think will help us grow the numbers and grow the brand. And those are the things we are looking for.

"And thirdly is the commercial support across the whole sport that the broadcasters are prepared to engage in.

"Those are the three main factors but when you get into the detail the list of requirements is probably about 400 long.”

Castle said Super Rugby had seen an increase in ratings in Australia since the decision was taken to reduce Super Rugby from 18 teams to 15 teams in 2018.