UK pay-TV broadcaster Premier Sports has raised doubts over the future of Pro14 highlights coverage on its channels given the focus on producing its extensive live output of all matches from the cross-border rugby union competition.
In landing the rights from 2018-19 to 2020-21, Premier Sports also took on the commitment to broadcast a highlights programme as the regional BBC channels in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales failed to negotiate an agreement to retain highlights after losing their live rights.
The acquisition of the Pro14 rights was the catalyst for Premier Sports to significantly improve its production quality. The broadcaster has invested a seven-figure sum in production with 95 per cent of that spend on the live output of all 152 games per season. One game per match week is shown live on its free-to-air FreeSports channel.
Given that emphasis, the broadcaster is unsure of the benefits to investing in the highlights programme as well, with chief executive Richard Sweeney telling WalesOnline that he is “not too sure if the highlights programme on the Sunday works”.
He remarked: “I’m not too sure what we are going to do with the highlights this year. I sometimes feel maybe that [Welsh-language channel] S4C or the BBC should be doing the highlights show. Everything’s a possibility.
“Are we as a premium channel gaining the benefit for the cost that’s involved? Are people a bit annoyed that it’s not what they are used to from a highlights programme, which is a magazine-style show? Are we the right place to deliver something like that? Is it for somebody else to look after those highlights?”
Any sublicense of the highlights to a free-to-air broadcaster would need to be approved by Pro14.
In Wales, the highlights on the BBC’s ‘Scrum V’ highlights and analysis show had proved particularly popular. Some free-to-air coverage was retained in Wales when the new rights contracts kicked in, however, as S4C shows one live and two delayed games per match week.
Sweeney noted that Premier Sports had “focused so much on getting these 152 games out [live] and making sure nothing was going to go wrong and delivering the promise we made, a promise which people didn’t believe we were going to fulfill.”
He added: “With the Scottish Cup [to which Premier Sports holds live rights], it works a little better, because BBC Scotland do the highlights show, a nice magazine show around it. It’s great, people love it, they get a feel of it and then they come to us to watch the live games and it actually works.
“It’s not for us to say who should be doing the Pro14 highlights. That’s more for the Pro14.”
Having been awarded the rights, Premier Sports appointed Sunset+Vine, the sports production firm, to produce its coverage, after around 10 companies bid for the contract.
Now heading into the second season of Pro14 coverage, Sweeney noted: “We were called the Ryanair of production. It was that sort of ‘cheap and cheerful, you get what you get’ type of comment. It was very condescending.
“The Pro14 deal was the time and opportunity for us to step up and become a player and for other broadcasters and organisations to take notice.”
The Pro14 and Scottish Cup have been among a string of acquisitions made by Premier Sports in the last 18 months as it has established more a foothold in the UK broadcast market (in part given BT Sport’s apparently waning interest in sports rights).
Premier Sports also now shows Italy’s Serie A and the broadcaster this week agreed a three-season deal for Spain’s LaLiga. The Scottish League Cup will join its programming portfolio next season, while all four of Scotland’s warm-up games for the 2019 Rugby World Cup were shown.
Sweeney would not be drawn on the impact of the improved rights portfolio on subscriber numbers, but declared himself happy with the figures overall.
He said that an average of around 40,000 viewers were watching Pro14 games on the FreeSports channel, matches that tend not to be the high-profile fixtures. Given an increase in marketing of that offering and FreeSports now being available in high definition, he expressed confidence that the figure would jump to between 55,000 and 60,000 viewers per game.
The 2019-20 Pro 14 season will kick off on Friday, September 27 as the Cheetahs host Glasgow Warriors in Bloemfontein.