Optus Move To Secure EPL Rights Will Have Big Consequences For The NRL

Pay Television provider Optus today announced that it had secured the exclusive rights to broadcast English PremierLeague soccer matches today in a deal said to be worth over $50 million. This deal in itself isn’t massive news in Australia as due to the kickoff times of most EPL games the television ratings for them in Australia are not all that impressive. However, the bigger picture suggest that we are about to see a big bidding war between Pay Television broadcasters…and that leaves the NRL in an incredibly strong position as it looks to negotiate a Pay Television broadcasting deal.

Foxtel were reportedly furious that the NRL left them out in the cold a little a couple of months ago when they announced a deal with Channel 9 in regards to broadcasting games on Free To Air Television. This saw Foxtel pay when many suggested was overs for the AFL Pay Television rights in a move that was supposed to embarrass the NRL and put pressure on then NRL CEO David Smith.

The NRL through all of this was quietly, very, very confident. They knew they held a product that was vital to any Pay Television broadcaster in Australia and they knew that as other deals were locked in well ahead of time, it allowed the NRL to sit back and get the right deal for the game of Rugby League.

Optus’ push to re-establish itself as a big player in the Australian sports broadcasting market has been bubbling along quietly, but now the cold war may be about to heat up. It is a case of going back to the future, with Optus aggressively buying up Pay Television sports broadcasting rights, as was the case in the mid 1990’s when a little something called Super League happened.

Make no mistake, Optus, Foxtel, and potentially other Pay Television broadcaster and now doing all the sums in regards to how much they can pay for the NRL Pay TV rights, how much they can make from those rights, and how much they would make and lose simply with the changes in their subscription bases based on gaining or losing those rights.

This all puts the NRL in the box seat in terms of how much money it can expect to gain from its next Pay Television deal. At the end of the day, Rugby League is now the game changer that is still available to any broadcaster looking to change their business in a big way.

Now, that all sounds fantastic, but as always there is something else to think about. As this all feels very much like the Pay Television sports war of the mid 1990’s, don’t think for a second that broadcasters are not putting contingency plans in place should they miss out of Rugby Leagues Pay Television rights. It would be bad business to not look at alternative ways to broadcast Rugby League matches should another broadcaster pick up the rights.

There will be a figure in place right now in the offices of both Optus and Foxtel that will determine at what point it would be cheaper to start a second Super League competition rather than losing the rights and losing so much money in advertising and subscription from customers who leave for the rival broadcaster.

This is where people in Rugby League will start to become uneasy…

Rugby League needs to take a strong, unified stance in such a situation. I’m going to be honest with you right now in saying that the chances of all parties in the NRL of showing a strong, unified stance are non existent.

We currently have an NRL administration that is doing a very good job of rebuilding the games foundation. They are under pressure by clubs who are terribly run but who are constantly demanding more money. Then you have the players, who are seeing all of this money being thrown about and executives from poorly run clubs driving around in free cars while the players don’t receive the money many of them truly do deserve for putting on such a good show.

It is a fact that the NRL is a financial behemoth in the world of “Rugby”, and yet the NRL’s elite player still do not earn the same amount of money as top of the line Rugby Union stars receive. Don’t think that has slipped their attention…

So you have all of these different factions in Rugby League, and the chances of them all working together are very minimal. That leaves the door open for another Super League War, and I think if we saw that happen, it would have giant ramifications for the games future that I personally believe would lead to an accelerated merging of the two codes of Rugby…something I believe is an inevitability in the long term due to financial pressures and the huge windfall that would await any organisation or broadcaster that would have control of the final merged code.

If the NRL plays their card right, if a united front is shown, if everyone in Rugby League works together and doesn’t fold when deals are being done, Rugby League will secure the biggest broadcasting deal in Australian sports history. It will secure a deal that will allow clubs to get what they want, expansion in place, money money for players, more money for the grass roots of the game, and easier access to watch Rugby League for people across Australia.

If Rugby League can not do that, it doesn’t deserve any of that.

It will be very interesting to see where Pay Television negotiations go from here. One thing is for sure, the NRL just became the most valuable commodity in the Pay Television battle once again.

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