Rugby Australia blows its Fox Sports broadcast deal

Fox Sports is set to walk away from rugby union, ending a 25-year broadcasting partnership that began when the game turned professional.

Months of talks between Fox Sports and Rugby Australia came to a halt on Wednesday, and the struggling code will likely have to make a deal with Optus.

Sources revealed RA chief executive Raelene Castle and Foxtel boss Patrick Delany have not spoken face to face in weeks, although emails had been traded.

The stunning development puts major pressure on rugby, with the game needing an extraordinary new deal to stay afloat.

The existing television deal, signed in 2015 and running through to the end of this year, was worth a total $285 million, giving RA $57 million a year.

However, that deal was bolstered by investment from Britain’s Sky Sport, who added millions to show southern hemisphere rugby. Sky has now pulled back on their level of interest.

Fox Sports and Network Ten are the domestic broadcasters, with Fox showing all Super Rugby games and both screening Wallabies Test matches. With Fox out of the equation, the most likely outcome is for RA to sign a deal with Ten and Optus, who would show Super Rugby on subscription as they do the English Premier League football.

Fox Sports is owned by News Corp, publishers of The Australian. With News Corp’s backing in 1996, rugby went professional and Fox Sports broadcast the first season of Super Rugby, and the partnership with the game has continued unabated until now.

Signs of unrest emerged last year when RA failed to finalise their television deal for 2021-25, despite partner nations New Zealand and South Africa signing theirs.

In attempting to gain more money for rugby, Castle refused Fox’s initial offer, which is when Optus emerged as a candidate. Problems were clear when just before the season kicked off last week, Fox released highly respected rugby commentator Nick McArdle and former Wallaby Drew Mitchell from their roster, and cut their weekly rugby show.

The first round matches averaged just 33,000 viewers last weekend, down 19 per cent on round one last year and more worryingly, games with Australian teams were down 35 per cent.

In their attempt to pitch a multi-layered package, RA has blocked Fox Sports’ offer to broadcast the Shute Shield and Queensland Premier Rugby this year. The Sydney club competition, owned by Club Rugby TV, is broadcast by Channel Seven, who are paid by Sydney Rugby Union to show the match of the round each Saturday.

Fox Sports offered to pick up the $300,000 annual fee to show Shute Shield matches and Queensland club rugby games, with Seven — who have the rights until the end of 2024 — agreeing to the proposal.

But RA want club rugby as part of their entire package and blocked the move, presumably so if they could not make a deal with Fox Sports, they could sell it to Ten and Optus.

Club Rugby TV can either sell to Fox Sports or RA, at which point Castle can take RA’s broadcast package to the open market.

An RA spokesman said the package would go to the market within a fortnight.

“Rugby Australia’s preparations for the next five-year rights period have led to a key focus on creating alignment across the rugby competitions in Australia,” he said.

“Our strategy is to provide an integrated whole of rugby presentation to our fans and, importantly, we are confident that there is real interest from the market in this content. We are preparing to take the package to market early this month.”