Rugby Australia suspends broadcast rights negotiations

Rugby Australia has suspended talks over its next broadcast rights deal, as chief executive Raelene Castle today (Tuesday) conceded that the rugby union governing body may need to approach the government for financial assistance during the coronavirus crisis.

The national governing body issued its media-rights tender in the middle of last month, with the organisation hoping to receive offers this week for the new five-year cycle spanning 2021 to 2025.

Speaking at a press conference, Castle conceded that this deadline has been scrapped to allow media companies to focus on wider issues concerning how the pandemic is affecting their business.

Rugby Australia is currently the only member of the Sanzaar umbrella body of the South African, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina rugby unions that is yet to finalise a new rights deal, but Castle said she is confident an agreement can be struck once the coronavirus situation stabilises.

Castle said: “The decision was made after feedback from our stakeholders involved in the process. It will allow them to concentrate on the important issues that they are all facing within their own businesses.

“We’d like to have been able to finish the process but at the end of the day this was something nobody saw coming, certainly the people [who] were in very positive and constructive conversations didn’t see coming. They need to focus on that.

“This will return to normal at some stage. Rugby plays a very important part in the global sporting calendar and we know the rugby community will pull together to make sure we can deliver those outcomes. We’ve got a really long runway, including up to a [British & Irish] Lions series [in 2025].”

Earlier this month, telecoms operator Optus was reported to be the leading candidate to acquire pay-television rights in Rugby Australia’s tender process. It had been reported that incumbent rights-holder Foxtel, the pay-television operator, had not signed Rugby Australia’s non-disclosure agreements, raising serious doubts over whether it will submit an offer.

Foxtel was unable to negotiate an agreement with Rugby Australia during an exclusive negotiation period. It was reported to have lodged a bid of A$40m (€21.8m/$24.1m) per year during that process. The current five-year rights agreement with Foxtel runs from 2016 to 2020 and is worth a total of A$285m (or A$57m per year).

At the weekend, Sanzaar announced that its Super Rugby club competition had been suspended. This will place severe strain on the finances of franchises, along with Rugby Australia’s cash reserves. Castle said that, while it has not asked the government for assistance to date, help may be required.

She said: “Any ongoing restrictions will put extreme pressure on Rugby Australia’s finances. We are obviously not the only sport in the country facing these challenges in the current environment. As a sport we have opened communication with the government to flag these significant concerns across all levels of our game.”

Asked whether rugby could receive government funding, she added: “It’s difficult isn’t it. You’re in a situation where many businesses are facing challenges similar to ours because of things we never saw coming.

“There’s no question the sport does help engage Australians and helps them at a community level, helps them at a nationalistic level, so sport does hold an interesting place in government’s engagement, that’s why they invest in sport as they do. That’s a conversation we will consider and we will continue to have with government, while recognising they have got a lot of things on the plate.”

Seven of the 18 rounds of the Super Rugby had been completed before the weekend’s suspension and Castle suggested Sanzaar could consider new domestic competitions to fill the void. She said: “All the Sanzaar nations are working together with their competition managers to see if we can find a competition that makes sense, that links into the games played and potentially gives us an outcome that allows to still play a finals series.

“We’re working cross country from a Sanzaar perspective and also in consultation with our broadcasters. The travel restrictions mean that cross border competition doesn’t seem realistic so domestic obviously leads the conversation.”