New era dawns for European pro rugby

This weekend, London Wasps and Stade Francais will inaugurate the new European Rugby Champions Cup by playing the first of a two-leg match to decide the last place in the new competition proper when it starts next season — a tournament that has changed the broadcast landscape as well.

After a year and a half of tense disagreement, which has seen one of the premier cup tournaments in any European sporting league consigned to the history books, BT Sport and Sky Sports have finally agreed on a broadcasting agreement covering the new European club competitions to replace the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups next season.

A deal was meant to be announced late March, closely following the announcement of a new six-year accord signed by the nine stakeholders involved in European rugby to set up the new competition (the national unions from the Six Nations countries as well as representatives from the English Premiership, France’s Top 14 clubs and the Welsh regions). However, such was the complexity of the accord that the Italian Rugby Federation asked for more time at the last minute to consider the fine print and it was nearly mid-April before the ink was dry on the document.

It was wholly appropriate for the broadcasters to wait their turn though as it was partly their actions in the first place that helped precipitate the crisis in the sport, or at least extend it. First, as far back as June 2012, the English and French clubs refused to sign a new agreement with Heineken Cup organiser European Rugby Cup (ERC) to run beyond the end of the 2013-14 season, as part of a game of brinksmanship that sought to give the teams more commercial power.

Then, the following September, BT announced it had bought the rights for English Premiership teams’ matches in a new European tournament which would succeed the Heineken Cup and start in 2014-15. And with that deal agreed with the English Premiership, Sky then later announced it had signed a deal with ERC that extended its own rights for the Heineken Cup out to 2017-18.

It was a messy situation with a lot of vested interests and powerful players involved, but a deal was eventually brokered largely thanks to the efforts of one man: the English Rugby Football Union’s chief executive, Ian Ritchie. First he leveraged the RFU’s atypical neutrality into a restructure: the Heineken and Amlin Cups will be replaced by the elite European Rugby Champions Cup and an as-yet-unnamed second tier competition below that replacing the current Amlin Cup. Meanwhile a new third tier competition has been established to help widen the game to the important developing countries such as Georgia and Romania.

(The lack of a title sponsor is deliberate rather than unfortunate; the theory being that it makes more sense to have an array of commercial partners, such as the Uefa Champions League does in football, rather than a single over-arching one).

Next, Ritchie used two decades’ worth of experience in the broadcasting industry — he is a former Channel 5 chief executive and joint chairman of Sports News Television — to organise and chair face-to-face meetings between the heads of Sky and BT Sport.

The result is that the two UK-based broadcasters will both screen matches from the tournaments having brokered a rather complex pick deal. According to the Daily Telegraph, which has charted a lot of the minutiae of the conflict, the detail sees BT Sport get first choice on three matches involving clubs in the Aviva Premiership for each of the six rounds of pool matches in the new elite tournament. Sky Sports will then have first pick for three matches of games not involving English sides (which seeing as how some of the biggest clubs in the competition are from the French Top 14 or RaboDirect Pro12 leagues should not be too much of a hardship).

The remainder of the games will then be divided between the two broadcasters which should see Sky broadcast at least a couple of games involving English teams per weekend. Quarter-finals and semis will be split and both will broadcast the final.

With the second tier competition the positions are reversed: Sky getting first choice on three matches involving English clubs with BT then able to select three games that do not involve English sides.

It’s been an interesting, even ground-breaking compromise, but it has not resulted in an ending of hostilities between the broadcasters. Barely a week after the deal was announced Sky Sports confirmed it had poached coverage of France’s Top 14 from BT Sport in a five-year contract with Ligue Nationale de Rugby for what is the richest domestic competition in the game.

And perhaps even more pertinently, the new European competitions are open-ended and have an initial and guaranteed six-year run. Meanwhile, the Sky/BT Sport deal only lasts four years. Mr Ritchie’s services may well be called on again in the future…

Subscribe and Get SVG Europe Newsletters