Rugby Australia dealt blow as Optus focuses on football

Embattled Rugby Australia has been dealt a fresh blow after telecoms operator Optus said it won’t be bidding for the sport’s domestic broadcast rights.

In March, Optus was considered to be the leading candidate to acquire pay-television rights in Rugby Australia’s invitation to tender process, and had reportedly begun to seek out production companies.

The national governing body issued its media-rights tender in the middle of February, seeking partners for the period spanning 2021 to 2025. However, Rugby Australia later suspended talks as then chief executive Raelene Castle conceded that it may need to approach the government for financial assistance during the Covid-19 crisis.

Optus director of sport Rich Bayliss has now said the company will not be bidding, rejecting talk it had been close to securing rights prior to the suspension of the process.

Bayliss told Australian radio show Big Sports Breakfast: “It’s hard to almost look at that now given what’s happened in rugby since, I think the speculation was out there but to be honest we weren’t particularly close, nor was it going to happen given Covid.

“Once that popped up all bets were off. To be honest we were focusing on football, that’s been our number one sport – our only sport – for the last couple of years. And whilst we’d like to go into different sports at some point, I don’t think it was particularly close.

“Once Covid came along as well it meant we had to bunker down and focus on our subscribers and keeping people employed for a start, and who knows what will happen in the future but certainly in the short term there’s not much chance of us adding any major Australian rights.”

Optus has positioned itself as the leader in football coverage in Australia. Earlier this year, it secured rights to follow Australia’s progress at its maiden Copa America campaign. It also has rights for the English Premier League in the 2019-22 cycle, the Uefa Champions League and Europa League in the 2018-21 cycle and the Uefa Euro 2020 championship (now rescheduled to 2021). A three-season J.League rights deal was announced in February, following on from a deal for rights to the FA Women’s Super League.

Rugby Australia’s current five-year rights agreement with pay-television operator Foxtel runs from 2016 to 2020 and is worth a total of A$285m (€171.7m/$186m). Reports that Foxtel had not signed Rugby Australia’s non-disclosure agreements raised serious doubts over whether it would submit an offer as relationships with the Rugby Australia leadership team headed by Castle appeared to sour.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that Fox Sports has not changed its stance, despite the recent departure of Castle, adding that its main focus is on securing longer deals with rugby league competition the NRL and Aussie rules football league the AFL.

Foxtel was unable to negotiate an agreement with Rugby Australia during an exclusive negotiation period. It is reported to have lodged a bid of A$40m per year during that process. Pay-television’s Fox Sports broadcast the inaugural Super 12 season in 1996 and has backed Australian rugby ever since.

Former Rugby Australia chief operating officer Rob Clarke was last week appointed interim chief executive, after Castle resigned last month at the instigation of the governing body’s board after nearly two-and-a-half years in the position.