Wednesday 22 November 2017

Fans had to take the hit to secure European competition – Browne

IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne
IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne has described the increased cost of watching European rugby as the price fans have to pay in order to secure the future of the club game.

Apart from ERC Ltd and its Dublin-based staff, it was the fans who watch their rugby on television who were the real losers in last week's 'peace agreement' which produced the replacement for the Heineken Cup.

The deal between Sky Sports and BT Sport to share the rights to the games 50/50 was ultimately necessary for the European Rugby Champions Cup to get the green light, but with access to BT Sport through the Setanta Sport's package costing fans €240 a year on top of their €432 Sky Sports subscription, it will hit the supporters in the pocket.

The current agreement will last for four seasons. After that the status quo could be maintained or there could be a bidding war between the rival broadcasters for the exclusive rights to the competition.

"Of course that was a discussion point and a consideration, but at the end of the day, we had to find a solution," Browne said.

"We're in a situation where there will be a television agreement involving Sky and BT for a number of years and, when that's over, we'll see what happens. That, I suppose, is the price we have to pay."

PRECARIOUS

The last time Browne stood looking over the pitch at the Aviva Stadium and considered the precarious nature of the future of European rugby, he described the IRFU as a "cork on the tide".

Now, that tide has come in and, rather than wreckage, it has brought with it a new, streamlined version of the Heineken Cup which has been designed by the English and French clubs, who, effectively, have got their way in every part of the deal after a year of uncertainty.

Interestingly, before yesterday's Irish Sports Council funding announcement, which saw the union pocket €2.36 in investment for grassroots development, they had not released a statement or commented on the new competition.

Browne described the end result as a "success" given the fact there is a competition in place for next season, but there have been concessions.

"You go through a process like that and the best deal is a deal where nobody is entirely happy," he said.

"From that point of view, it has been a successful outcome for everyone, in that the governance of the game still lies with the unions and the governance of this tournament lies with the participants. That is the importance of the decisions that were taken.

"We felt that 24 teams might have been the best way to go, in that it provided a level of excitement, given the way the pool system works.

"The proof will be in the eating of the pudding as to how the 20- team competition works. Personally, I think it will work. It also, hopefully, will also ensure that the secondary competition will be more competitive, which was something that was of great importance to the French in particular.

"The important thing is that agreement was reached; that we have a European competition, going forward, that all the parties are still in and that professional rugby in Europe still has a set of competitions that underpin international rugby – and that, ultimately, was the most important thing.

While it will hit the consumer, the combination of Sky and BT will boost the union coffers at least and there is a belief that the new tournament, with its partner sponsor approach, can generate greater revenues than the soon-to-be-defunct Heineken Cup.

"I think the scope is there when you look at what has happened in the French league. They have effectively doubled their television income with their new deal," Browne said.

"If that's the way things are moving, why not? I think the other important thing is that the revenues derived from the BT/Sky deal are greater than the revenues that would have been derived purely from the original Sky deal in the UK and Ireland.

"From that point of view, yes, we're seeing an increase in revenue and that can only be good for anyone in the context of professional rugby. There are a lot of hungry wallets out there in terms of the demands of the professional game – players, coaches, infrastructure, etc – and it has to be paid for."

Irish Independent

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