What's going on? Rugby Australia's broadcast negotiations explained

Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle is holding firm as negotiations seemingly fall apart with Fox Sports Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

In a period when rugby union finds itself in almost clear Australian sporting air, the game is instead embroiled in one of the most tumultuous broadcast negotiations the country has seen.

Currently, Super Rugby doesn't have to compete with the AFL or NRL, the Big Bash League is winding down and the A-League is spluttering towards its postseason, so the embattled rugby competition should be taking advantage and attracting a few extra eyeballs.

But on Thursday morning, those very eyeballs will have been drawn to the back pages of Sydney's two major newspapers -- the Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald -- and articles detailing the situation Rugby Australia finds itself in, albeit with differing levels of alarm.

Rugby Australia has essentially taken its broadcast rights to market for the first time since the game went professional, potentially bringing a halt to the partnership with Fox Sports take began in 1996 when the then Super 12 was the focal point of the pay TV broadcaster's creation.

Oh how times have changed.

Rugby in Australia experienced a boom through the late 90s and first part of the following decade, highlighted by the 2001 British & Irish Lions series and 2003 Rugby World Cup on home soil. It was also the period when Australia dominated the Bledisloe Cup, won the 99 World Cup and made the final in 03, and the Brumbies lifted two Super 12 titles. The game was in rude health, and sat only behind the AFL as the nation's No. 2 code.

But it has been a slippery slope for the sport Down Under ever since as the Wallabies' form fell away -- they haven't tasted Bledisloe Cup glory since 2002 -- and Super 12 morphed from Super 14 to Super Rugby, expanding and then retracting as interest waxed and waned.

What had once been an attractive proposition for free-to-air broadcasters quickly became the sole domain of Fox Sports. But with market fluctuations, the onset of streaming providers and further problems for both Super Rugby and Australian rugby on its own, the pay TV broadcaster closed its coffers for content deemed to be 'non-marquee' sport - in other words, anything other than the AFL, NRL and cricket.


Yes, Fox Sports made Rugby Australia an offer to continue broadcasting Australian rugby. But unsatisfied by the deal, the governing body opted to take the rights to market for the first time in the code's history.

The exact figure isn't known, but Fox Sports offer' was rumoured to be nowhere near the $60m per year figure Rugby Australia had been seeking. Media reports have placed Fox Sports' offer more in the vicinity of the $35m-40m mark, prompting RA to seek alternative broadcast agreements.

On the eve of the 2020 Super Rugby season, it was revealed Fox Sports had parted ways with veteran host Nick McArdle and analyst Drew Mitchell having already let go rugby executive producer Simon Gee and commentator Sean Maloney midway through 2019. That appeared to be another step towards a complete severing of ties with the game.

Industry insiders had also made note of the lack of rugby vision in Fox Sports' sizzle reel promoting the broadcasters' content slate for 2020, even though it retains the rights through to the end of the year.

If they were powerplays on Fox's behalf, they seemingly had little -- or even the adverse -- effect on Rugby Australia.

Fox Sports' Head of Sport, Peter Campbell, moved to clarify the broadcasters position after Thursday's earlier newspaper reports suggested it had walked away from the deal.

"We never comment on commercial negotiations or speculation about broadcast rights," Campbell said. "Fox Sports will continue to be the home of rugby union with all Super Rugby, the Rugby Championship and Wallabies games in 2020. The rugby rights from 2020 onwards are a matter for Rugby Australia."


After claiming the rights for the English Premier League in 2015, telco Optus has emerged as a genuine player in the Australian sports media market. Since then, they have complemented that football coverage with the addition of UEFA Champions League, Europa League and Euro 2020 as well as the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in August last year, Optus chief executive Allen Lew indicated the telco had an appetite to further supplement its football offering by targeting other sports in the marketplace.

And so it emerged that Optus made a play for the broadcast rights to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Fox Sports eventually won the rights to the tournament's 48 games, alongside the Ten Network, yet ESPN understands that Optus' World Cup bid was actually higher, but World Rugby instead bowed to pressure from the pay TV broadcaster's parent company News Corp.

On the surface of that information, it would appear that Optus' interest in securing the rights to Australian rugby is genuine. But a source confirmed to ESPN that no deal had been done after news of Fox Sports' complete withdrawal from the negotiating table was reported in varying degrees on Thursday morning.


It would certainly be a break from the code's conventions, which have forever been tied to Fox Sports in Australia.

There is no doubt the move away from traditional linear broadcasts is only going to increase: but the big question is whether Rugby Australia is the first of the medium to large local codes to take the plunge.

Optus certainly experienced some issues with its streaming of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but the telco has since resolved many of the issues that blighted its coverage of that tournament to provide a service that generally meets the expectations of football fans.

A move to Optus could alienate rugby fans in regional areas -- who remain some of the code's most ardent supporters -- given the issues with data speeds that exist outside of the major cities and larger regional centers.

Whether any deal with Optus would allow for Super Rugby matches to be shown on delay on free-to-air television is unknown but Wallabies Tests remain on the Australian Government's anti-siphoning list, which means that Optus would have to sub-license those matches to a willing free-to-air broadcaster just as Fox Sports has done over the previous decade, or form a partnership during the tender process.

Ten are the incumbent and likely only suitor with Channels Seven and Nine seemingly content to consolidate around their existing properties and unlikely to see rugby -- in the current environment -- an attractive enough proposition.

Any move by RA to hand the broadcast rights over to Optus would be a gamble. Is the rusted-on audience that have remained loyal to Foxtel, prepared to cut either cut ties with the pay TV broadcaster or Kayo, and add on another streaming service in a market that already extends to Netflix, Stan, Disney+ and Amazon?

On the flipside, RA may be holding that over Fox Sports as bargaining chip with rugby's supporters generally seen to exist in higher socio-economic groups more likely to subscribe to Foxtel's complete package but for which rugby remains the vital hook.


News of the Shute Shield emerging as the deal-breaker will come as little surprise to anyone with an understanding of the current rugby landscape but a complete shock to those with little to no experience with the game.

The Shute Shield, for the uninitiated, is Sydney's grade rugby competition which essentially sits as the fourth tier of development and exists in an environment somewhere between an amateur and semi-professional level.

It has however flourished in recent times as supporters have found their way back to a more grassroots style of rugby that is played under the winter sun on Saturday afternoons amid the scent of steak sandwiches and the sounds of kids playing their own games in the background in between breaks in play on the broadcast.

That broadcast has been established over the last few years by Club Rugby TV and owners Nick Fordham and John Murray, the duo buying the rights to the competition from the Sydney and NSW Rugby Unions to screen one match per round on digital channel Seven Two.

While the broadcast is delivered in standard definition, its ratings have generally performed above expectations while the competition has done a fine job in promoting its marquee matches like the Northern Beaches derby between Manly and Warringah, which routinely draws crowds of 8,000-10,000 people and its grand final which just two years ago drew a near capacity attendance beyond 18,000 people at North Sydney Oval.

Those pictures, in particular, have demonstrated that rugby is certainly not dead and buried in Australia as many would have you think, but has instead seen fans withdraw from the top end of the game in favour of a more tribal existence at their local club.

That resurgence has, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, piqued the interest of Rugby Australia who want to include the Shute Shield rights as part of a whole-of-game offering that aligns rugby's competitions from top to bottom.

It is not known just where the National Rugby Championship, which has been broadcast on Fox Sports but in no way resonates with any rugby audience, sits within the governing body's current plans. Other reports indicate that a new national club competition could be in the works -- perhaps in a Champions League-style format -- but just where that would leave those clubs outside of Sydney and Brisbane is unknown.

Whatever the case, any deal that is to include the Shute Shield would have to be negotiated with Fordham and Murray whose Club Rugby TV owns the broadcast rights through 2024. It has suddenly made the competition, that was once on its knees and for whose supporters still share a level of distrust and discontent for Rugby Australia, suddenly appear to be Australia rugby's broadcast kingmakers.

And that in itself is an extraordinary turn of events.


Rugby Australia wants to have its new deal signed, sealed and delivered before March, and remains the only SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina) partner yet to secure its broadcast future through 2025.

That gives the governing body little more than three weeks to find a resolution, whether it be with Fox Sports or Optus, for a deal that is Australian rugby's most important in its history.

It looms as a choice between the tried and tested pay TV broadcaster that will provide the status quo at a price that isn't desirable, or a bold dive into the future of sports streaming that could alienate the game's long-time supporter base or attract a new dynamic audience of eyeballs in equal measure.

It's quite the situation Raelene Castle finds herself in. And no matter which way the negotiations fall, she will forever be tied to their end result.