Ryan rugby plan in doubt as FF members back IRFU
EMBATTLED Communications Minister Eamon Ryan last night suffered the first blow to his controversial free-to-air rugby plans when cross-party TDs and senators backed the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU).
The Oireachtas committee on sport passed a motion stating that the IRFU should continue to have independence in selling off the broadcast rights to Irish rugby matches.
That the motion was supported by Fianna Fail TDs and senators, who are Mr Ryan's coalition partners, represents a significant setback to his divisive proposals to have Heineken Cup and Six Nations matches free-to-air.
Backed also by Fine Gael and Labour, the motion effectively argues that Mr Ryan should not intervene with the broadcasting rights to Irish rugby matches.
The minister wants Ireland's games in both competitions to be added to the Government's "free-to-air" list so that fans can watch them free of charge on regular Irish channels.
But the IRFU has argued it will lose upwards of €12m in broadcasting revenue and this will result in financial turmoil for the entire game.
At a lengthy committee meeting with the IRFU, Green Party Senator Dan Boyle was the only political representative to mount a defence of Mr Ryan's proposals. He was not present at the end of the meeting when the motion was agreed.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Boyle accused the opposition of "making hay at a minister's expense".
But he also expressed disappointment with the stance of Fianna Fail TDs and senators.
"The minister deserved better support from other members of the committee I thought," he said.
Currently, the Six Nations is available free of charge on RTE after it won the rights until 2013. The Heineken Cup, in contrast, is broadcast on pay television and is only available two hours after the final whistle on RTE.
Under Mr Ryan's proposals, both competitions would be added to a "free-to-air" list to guarantee they are broadcast free of charge in future.
His colleague Mr Boyle said there was a possibility that the Six Nations would become pay-per-view in 2013 as RTE could be outbid and outmanoeuvred by the bigger sports channels.
Six Nations chief executive John Feehan said he could not offer any guarantees that the matches would remain free from 2013 as negotiations have yet to take place.
But he stressed the Six Nations games -- with the exception of one brief period in England's case -- had always been free. He also claimed it was the "absolute preference" of the Six Nations for the matches to remain free of charge for fans.
At the moment, RTE pays €3m for the broadcast rights but the IRFU receives another €11m from the central media pot which is divided up among the six competing countries.
It gets another €2m from RTE for deferred coverage of the Heineken Cup and €3m from the central media pot with the European Rugby Cup.
In total, the IRFU gets €16m in broadcast revenue but argues that if Ireland changed the way games are sold and negotiated, it will simply be left with the €5m from RTE.
Rugby bosses claim they stand to lose between €10m and €12m because the minister's proposals would end the collective approach of splitting the media pot six ways.
IRFU chief Philip Browne insisted the loss of €12m "could well be just the start".
Television companies want to negotiate the rights to tournaments as a whole and not on a piece meal basis, he said.