Before the RA broadcast rights talks restarted, Optus launched OS Fitness, a channel for subscribers with yoga and pilates, strength, core and high-intensity workouts that can be done at home. In August, 12 per cent of Optus Sport users watched the content. The fitness channel also experienced a large spike in minutes streamed after Melbourne entered stage four lockdown.
Optus’ absence from the official negotiating table leaves RA with fewer choices for a broadcasting partner. Fox Sports, which has broadcast Super Rugby since its inception in 1996, remains interested in rugby – particularly Super Rugby and Test matches. Amazon, which last week secured the rights to a one-off Eight Nations tournament in Europe, declined to comment on whether it was involved in the local tender process.
Meanwhile Network Ten, which is currently the free-to-air broadcaster for the Wallabies matches, did submit a formal expression of interest. Ten is the only commercial free-to-air broadcaster to formally enter talks, but sources have indicated the broadcaster is looking to pay less than it currently does for the matches. Ten currently pays about $3.5 million a year as part of RA’s $285 million deal signed with the broadcaster, Foxtel and BSkyB in 2015.
Earlier this year, RA rejected an offer from Foxtel’s sports network Fox Sports for the 2021-2025 rights which resulted in an open tender. Optus, which operates streaming platform Optus Sport, was in advanced talks to buy the rights, but they fell over when the pandemic hit. The telco provider’s interest has subsided since then.
In that time the code has gone through several major changes, including the installation of new chairman Hamish McLennan and interim chief executive Rob Clarke. Securing a new broadcast deal is one of the key priorities for RA as it looks to secure financial certainty for the code (the existing arrangement with RA’s broadcast partners expires at the end of the year).
When RA put its broadcast offering out publicly last month, it gave bidders the option to cherry pick different competitions and types of rugby content. This includes a combination of existing products like Bledisloe Cup matches and Shute Shield and new products such as a ‘State of Union’ three-game series. RA has not provided clarity on what next year’s Super Rugby season will look like.
The organisation has since announced the Rugby Championship will run in Australia. Clarke said the current broadcasters were very excited by it. “I know Fox and Ten will love the fact they’re getting such quality rugby at that time of the year and will drive, I hope, some subscriptions and viewership for them,” he said.
Sports codes are facing similar pressures to television broadcasters and telco providers due to the coronavirus crisis. Foxtel boss Patrick Delany said earlier this month that the subscription television operator would only focus on acquiring TV rights to ‘tier-one’ sports moving forward.
So far this year, Foxtel, Nine Entertainment Co (owner of this masthead) and Seven West Media have secured reductions on existing deals with the NRL and AFL. The broadcasters, which lost large amounts of advertisers during the pandemic, argued a reduction in matches and lack of crowds reduced the value of the sports codes they broadcast. Seven is separately trying to terminate its contract with Cricket Australia.