Big bucks: NRL CEO Dave Smith. Photo: Peter RaeOptimistic NRL officials believe they may be able secure more than $2 billion in total for the broadcast rights after stunning most in the game and the television industry by announcing a record $925 million free-to-air deal with Channel Nine.
NRL chief executive Dave Smith said it had been a “judgment call” to sell the free-to-air rights to Nine – which will now broadcast four matches live each week on Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, as well as State of Origin – while still negotiating other aspects of the broadcast deal. But officials are upbeat that it will improve rather than diminish the game’s bargaining power with Fox Sports.
With the $185 million per year Nine will pay being more than double the $90 million per year the network contributes to the current $1 billion deal, the NRL could fetch more than $2 billion if they can convince Fox Sports to increase the $110 million per year it now pays by a similar percentage.
While Fox Sports will lose Monday Night Football, which is being scrapped, and the pay-TV network’s Super Saturday franchise is set to be eroded as Nine will show one game live on Saturday nights and they will have exclusive rights to one less match per week, the NRL is offering the opportunity to broadcast all eight matches live through a simulcast arrangement for the four matches that Nine has the rights to.
Such a move would enable Fox Sports to attract subscribers on the basis they can watch all NRL matches live in the same place, with the likely exception of the grand final and Origin series.
It is unclear what the options are if Fox Sports doesn’t come to the party but the belief is that pay-TV needs the game more than the game needs pay-TV, and with the current rights deal in place until the end of the 2017 season the NRL is in no hurry to finalise a deal.
“It is the biggest deal in Australian free-to-air history, worth $925 million over five years, and to put that in a bit of perspective, that’s nearly as much as we secured for the entire rights deal last time and with simulcast, pay-TV and international rights, including New Zealand, still to come you can expect an even stronger picture,” Smith said.
Club chief executives welcomed the deal, although they are awaiting more detail of how the NRL will schedule matches now that the game has gained control of the draw.
The RLPA was also cautious about the impact changes to the representative schedule, including playing Origin II on a Sunday night, would impact on player welfare.
Canberra CEO Don Furner supported the end of Monday Night Football and said the Raiders hoped to get more Sunday afternoon games.
“An extra Sunday game is better for us because we’ve always wanted extra Sunday games in winter,” Furner told Fairfax Media. “Monday night is a very tough night to get people out there, especially when we get the games in August.”
Brisbane chief executive Paul White said the NRL having control of the season schedule was a win for the fans.
“We own our scheduling again, Thursday night football’s going to be a feature obviously of the program going forward and there’s still the upside of pay television and digital rights to come,” White said.
“A number of clubs are really struggling financially, in fact the vast majority of clubs are struggling financially and we won’t have a product unless we get them up and all financially stable and viable. The money’s a terrific number but it’s well needed and … it does secure the future of our game. We all have a responsibility to make sure it gets to the NRL areas that are in need but also all areas of the game.”
Melbourne CEO Dave Donaghy said: “The devil is in the detail but on principal it looks to be a vast improvement on the current situation for the structure of the competition and the impact it has on clubs. The challenge will be having a fair degree of patience waiting for that to happen but I think Dave Smith and his team at the NRL need to be commended for the securing of the rights. It is a pretty important day for our game”.
Leading sports media rights analyst Colin Smith said it was too early to say whether the NRL would be better off in the long term by finalising a deal for the free-to-air rights only.
“This is a much better deal than what they had but we don’t know at this stage if the grand prize be significantly more,” Smith said.
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