RugbyPass, the increasingly active and influential rugby union news website, has announced this week (Weds, Feb 24th, 2021) an exclusive live stream broadcast rights deal for the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa competition which starts on Friday, February 26th.
The deal, which covers more than 100 countries across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, comes into effect immediately, with weekend and season passes both available at a range of budgets.
So far, so straightforward, you might imagine, but this news showcases the value of being able to identify an opportunity and have the agility to move quickly when that opportunity presents itself, from the perspective of both the rights-holder and broadcaster (which in this instance also doubles up as distributor).
Last summer Super Rugby Aotearoa provided rugby fixes on Saturday and Sunday mornings on Sky Sports here in the UK, followed hot on its heels by Super Rugby AU.
Sky Sports had been the home of Super Rugby ever since its inception, capitalising on the initial blockbuster deal between SANZAR (as it then was without Argentina) and News Corp which both bankrolled the three big southern hemisphere unions and was one of the key cornerstones of rugby union’s transition to professionalism in the mid-1990s.
After years of expansion – which some people welcomed while many others did not – the pandemic had forced individual nations to concentrate on their domestic product under the Super Rugby banner.
In New Zealand in particular this brought about a highly focused, 10-week test match level competition more akin to the NFL than what Super Rugby had become over the previous few seasons, wherein players had plenty of time to condition themselves, before highly intense and physical contests on the field, and then a few weeks to rehab before joining up with the All Blacks or their provinces.
The standard of play received rave reviews, but this was not reflected when it came around to the TV broadcast deals for 2021, a situation not helped by Rugby Australia having moved away from Fox Sports to the new STAN platform and Channel 9.
Indeed, SANZAAR confirmed the impact, with a spokesperson quoted in The Rugby Paper on February 18thas saying: “Sporting federations ability to negotiate new commercial deals in areas such as sponsorship and television broadcasting has been severely compromised in the market due to reduced budgets, a decrease in business confidence, less available product and the ongoing uncertainty created by the pandemic.
“At present we have been unable to get agreement from broadcasters in Europe and we have no OTT (over the top) platform in place as these costs are very expensive.”
Notwithstanding the over-estimation of the costs of developing an OTT platform and the opportunity it presents – UK Sport are developing a platform for Olympic and Paralympic sports to showcase competitions and behind-the-scenes features under the banner of GB Sport Media and Chair Dominic Coles, formerly of the BBC and Discovery Networks – for a few days it looked like southern hemisphere rugby would be notable by its absence from screens.
Then up steps RugbyPass. The website has become a multimedia hub for the sport, with highlights, interviews and original films, and this deal with Super Rugby Aotearoa marks a serious step into the next level of broadcast.
CEO Neil Martin recognises this, saying: “this new partnership with NZR further demonstrates our commitment to the sport and the major competitions and content that fans desire.”
Equally important was the comment from New Zealand Rugby CEO, Mark Robinson, who in one fell swoop has bypassed scores of individual broadcasters to reach into both traditional and new markets: “to be doing something different by partnering with RugbyPass to deliver our competition to fans worldwide is really exciting.”
And where are Australia in this? Lagging far behind, with a competition which has already kicked off but can only be seen on the kind of websites where pop-ups come up every 30 seconds.
So what are the learnings?
Firstly, when opportunities arise you have to take them quickly. Of course the pounds, Euros or dollars have to be right, as does the reach. It seems in this instance that both boxes are ticked, although of course we are not privy to the precise details.
Regardless, RugbyPass are getting the enviable trio of credibility, income and reach, while New Zealand Rugby are benefitting from the simplicity of dealing with a global distributor and its ability to touch the new markets so desired by rugby union’s power brokers.
Meanwhile the fans who so enjoy Super Rugby Aotearoa get to watch a legitimate feed at a reasonable price.
Secondly, while SANZAAR were apparently intimidated by the costs and time required to establish its own OTT platform, it looks like they have lacked the flexibility or speed of thought to recognise the possibilities of a partnership which New Zealand Rugby has established with RugbyPass.
In fact, as soon as it looked like a ‘traditional’ broadcast deal was becoming out of reach then SANZAAR should have been looking at its own options and getting ahead of the curve. Were Amazon Prime – who covered the Autumn Nations Cup at the end of 2020 – considered, or consulted? Again, we’ll never know, but these discussions must be had by rights-holders.
It seems inconceivable that given the examples of UK Sport, World Rugby and the NFL, to name just three organisations who have their own content platforms, SANZAAR would not have been able to follow suit.
The final learning does not necessarily apply to any of the above. SANZAAR is a multi-nation organisation, and GB Sports Media will be showcasing some of the UK’s biggest national governing bodies.
But you do not have to have these kind of resources to establish such a partnership. Global-13’s Expert Associates have helped the Rugby League Nines series of tournaments find suitable platforms for its eye-catching product, and are working on similar projects across a number of sports and territories.