PRO14 to switch pay-TV broadcasters in Ireland and UK as Sky exits
By Simon Ward
Changes are afoot in the pay-television coverage of the PRO14, the rugby union clubs competition involving teams from Europe and South Africa, as a result of pending new rights deals in Ireland and the UK.
Eir Sport, the ambitious Irish broadcaster, is set to show live matches for the first time next season in a multi-year deal after outbidding incumbent rights-holder Sky.
As a result of the new agreement, which has yet to be formally announced, Sky has decided to walk away from the PRO14 altogether, meaning that it will no longer show games in the UK either.
The PRO14 involves four teams from Ireland – Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster – as well as representatives of Italy, Scotland, Wales, and, starting this season, South Africa.
The organisers are understood to be in talks with other subscription broadcasters about taking on rights in the UK, while also holding renewal talks with existing free-to-air partners, as they seek to increase rights revenues that presently amount to an estimated €14 million ($17 million) per year.
The obvious UK pay-TV candidates are BT Sport, Sky’s main rival, whose extensive rugby offering already includes live coverage of England’s top-tier Aviva Premiership and European club rugby competitions, and Premier Sports, which until now has been more closely aligned with rugby league.
Eir Sport, formerly known as Setanta Sports, has been building up its rights portfolio, and the new agreement for the PRO14 represents an upgrade on its present highlights deal.
Major acquisitions so far have included exclusive rights in Ireland to the 2019 Rugby World Cup to be staged in Japan and Ireland tours and away matches, including the memorable win over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016.
Eir Sport also benefits from a content-sharing deal with BT Sport, which gives it access to some live games from English soccer’s Premier League.
Glen Killane, the managing director of Eir Sport, said last month that it would need “battering rams” in order to challenge Sky in Ireland though its financial position may have been strengthened by the pre-Christmas deal in which a consortium led by NJJ Telecom Europe, owner of the French telecoms company Iliad, took a majority stake in the parent Eir telecoms group for €3.5 million.
The Eir Sport deal does not preclude continued free-to-air coverage of the PRO14 as it is reported that the broadcaster could agree a sub-licensing deal with TG4, the Irish-language network which presently shows matches.
Sky has been broadcasting a selection of PRO14 matches since the 2014-15 season, but made ongoing coverage of the competition in the UK contingent on retaining rights in Ireland.
It remains to be seen if the package will be the sufficiently attractive to BT Sport, which is already increasing its rugby union output next season, when it becomes the exclusive broadcaster of the European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup in the UK and Ireland, as a compromise sharing deal with Sky comes to an end.
While a deal with Premier Sports would have the advantage of making the Guinness PRO14 the main rugby union offering on a UK channel, the broadcaster has far fewer customers than Sky or BT Sport. Premier Sports recently launched a free-to-air channel, however, which could help to satisfy sponsors' appetite for exposure.
The network broadcast every game live from last year’s Rugby League World Cup hosted by Australia and New Zealand, and holds rights to England’s second-tier Championship, but may well be interested in the other code having not, as yet, retained rights to Australia’s National Rugby League, a competition it has shown since 2011.
Existing free-to-air broadcasters of the PRO14, including BBC Wales and S4C in Wales, BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Alba, the Gaelic-language channel of BBC Scotland, are all expected to be keen to retain live rights.
The PRO14 coffers were boosted this season by deals with Eurosport, the international sports broadcaster, covering Italy and 37 other European territories, and SuperSport, the South African pay-television operator, after the addition of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings from that particular market.
The tournament organisers and SuperSport are understood to have been pleasantly surprised by viewing figures in South Africa, especially for matches not involving the two local teams, after a multi-year agreement was concluded on the eve of the 2017-18 season, with the favourable time zone a key factor.
The competition culminates with the final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on 26 May.