Thursday 27 October 2016

Brendan Fanning: Pro12 must engineer bumper TV deal to keep provinces in touch with Anglo-French elite

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Jamie Heaslip is tackled by Tom McCartney during yesterday’s Pro 12 final in Edinburgh. Photo: Ramsey Cardyfacet
Jamie Heaslip is tackled by Tom McCartney during yesterday’s Pro 12 final in Edinburgh. Photo: Ramsey Cardyfacet

It's May 19, 2012. The contest is over long before the final whistle, allowing us the luxury of taking in some of the colour of Twickenham. And there is lots of it. Leinster are in the process of wrapping up their third Heineken Cup in four seasons, and even if Ulster have been beaten out the gate at least it's a gate they have managed to get through for the first time since 1999.

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All around are swathes of red and blue, an illustration of Ireland's power in the club game. In the competition to describe the view from the summit in west London that evening, nobody was considering that the only way was down.

That scene was the final straw for the English and French clubs. Only one English representative, Saracens, made the knock-out phase. And Clermont were the only French side in the last four. If you were from either of those camps then the sight of wild Irishmen on the loose in Twickenham was the equivalent of the perfect storm. Viewed from their perspective, climate change was a good thing.

Four months later the degree to which the winds were turning became apparent. Mark McCafferty, the boss of Premiership Rugby, unveiled a tv deal for his clubs with the market's newest player, BT Vision, for a whopping €189m over four years. It was a 50pc improvement on the contract with Sky and ESPN. And it changed the face of rugby in this part of the world.

Leaving Twickenham that day in 2012 you wouldn't have had much of an audience if you started fantasising about an all-Irish Pro12 final on foreign soil. Well it came to pass yesterday evening, and despite it being pitched into a city that couldn't cope - a genius stroke to twin the event with the Edinburgh Marathon - we were grateful for it.

With Ireland drawing blanks in the World Cup and Six Nations, and Europe's knock-out territory a frontier explored only by Connacht - and that in the Challenge Cup - this was the silver lining on the cloud. And the quality of the semi-finals last weekend elevated the occasion to a new level.

The question now is if we should be satisfied with our place in the new rugby order, being the dominant force in Celtic rugby, or to chase the European dream again.

If the deal done with BT by Premier Rugby in 2012 was in the category of telephone numbers then its update has stuck a prefix before it, estimated in some quarters at an 80 per cent uplift. This is so far out of our parish as to be on another planet.

The only way the Celtic unions will be able to compete is if the current hotch-potch TV deal for the Pro12 morphs into something sexy in two years' time when it's up for renewal.

This will bring the unions involved to a fork in the road: turn left to stay on much the same track as now; turn right for a cleaner competition presented, hopefully, by fewer broadcasters for more money.

The first bit is easy, if unpalatable. The reason the Pro12 is divvied up between six broadcasters is because it's a regional tournament where the interest is real but the market is small. Sky may be by far the biggest hitter in that particular stable, but England is their prime marketplace and they're serving up a tournament that has no English involvement. So they didn't have to break the bank to do the deal two years ago.

The arrival to the table now of Eir, via their acquisition last December of Setanta Sports, was described at the time by the telecom group's chief executive as a "game changer". Certainly that's how the Celtic unions would like to see it.

This brings us to the second bit. Flogging the Pro12 is hard work for two reasons: it appeals to a fragmented, relatively small market; and it's a tournament in need of reform. Pro12 managing director Martin Anayi spoke here last month of the need to streamline the league into one where the Test players were always on view - and when, in the Test windows, they are unavailable, then a secondary competition should take over.

This would bracket the competition as a premium product and enhance its marketability. The issue then is who would buy it? Sky were able to pick it up for a song because they had no competition, not even from RTÉ. BT seemingly think it's a decent enough gig but they are knee-deep in England's Premiership and don't have a window, whatever about an audience.

A tie up between Eir, via Setanta, and BT however might open another opportunity. Clearly that would have to be achieved without BT compromising its commitment to the Premiership, but it's doable. And if then you could carve out some space for a national, free-to-air broadcaster in each of the regions - either RTÉ or TV3 in Ireland, rather than TG4 - you could lift the price to a level worth pursuing. The alternative would be to get Sky to increase their existing commitment, to screen more matches and for a higher price, which naturally they would be reluctant to do.

Cleaning up the league is an exercise that needs to happen before the Pro12 start knocking on the doors of any broadcaster. It won't reopen the window on the halcyon days of the Heineken Cup, when two sets of supporters were leaving this country on the same day, but it will help us stay afloat until something better comes along.

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