Those involved in the launch of the new BT Sport channels are confident that they can bring rugby to the masses and have promised to make themselves the ‘home of club rugby’ for the foreseeable future.
There are a couple of things working massively in BT’s favour in comparison with Setanta and ESPN’s attempts to pry rugby away from Sky in the past few years. Firstly, they have a huge existing customer base to which they can talk directly. Grant Best, Senior Channel Executive Producer, confirmed that BT Broadband customers would be eligible for a different, and evidently better, price plan.
For those without BT broadband and/or Vision, the BT Sport channels will be available on Sky – how exactly they will be incorporated into Sky’s current structure is as of yet unclear. That, along with price plans and the commentary/pundit team, will all be announced at the official launch over the coming months.
The second, and perhaps more important, factor playing in their favour is that Premiership Rugby is finally in the hands of one single broadcaster again. Over the past few years, with Sky sharing coverage with either ESPN or Setanta, either broadcaster’s coverage has effectively been promoting a rival’s product at the same time. It is a strange concept to consider, but from next season there will be just one company committed to Premiership Rugby and promoting it.
69 games, a combination of Sky and ESPN’s current respective shares, will be shown on BT, and they have been working closely with Premiership Rugby with the aim of achieving some sort of consistency of kick-off times, so fans can plan their weekends better in advance. There will be three games a weekend all available to BT customers, so the days of having to juggle subscriptions, or only being able to watch one or two games a weekend in your home, are theoretically over. There will also be a weekly highlights and discussion programme to rival Sky’s current offering of The Rugby Club.
A huge rugby-orientated marketing drive can be expected over the coming months, and we can expect plenty of innovation from the new coverage, with the audience at the heart of the action. Player interviews as they are leaving the pitch at half time, ref cam and studio audiences for games are all possibilities. BT have constructed a mammoth new 14,000 square foot studio (about the size of 3 tennis courts) at Olympic Park, so the potential for innovation and interaction with fans is certainly there.
Lawrence Dallaglio, the frontman for BT Sport’s rugby coverage, is excited about the prospect of bringing a new dimension to rugby broadcasting. “Rugby has got a responsibility to sell itself more, and get away from its elitist, middle-class image,” Dallaglio said. “We’ve got to make the sport less complicated without losing its essence.” A BBC Sport-style online news-feed for games was one concept discussed that would surely appeal to plenty of rugby fans – outside of the biggest international periods, it is something that is glaringly lacking for rugby fans at the moment.
To become the true ‘home of club rugby’, however, BT know they need to have all the top competitions. And that brings us to the great unresolved issue surrounding the club game in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment: Europe and the Heineken Cup. They already have the rights to the Top 14, with its host of international superstars, but to really be at the pinnacle of club rugby broadcasting, BT are aware they need the top European Cups, in whatever form they may be. “We want to be a part of the competition in 2014,” said Best, “whatever that competition becomes.”
Having acquired the Premiership rights for the next four years with a whopping £152 million bid, you sense that however the European situation does resolve itself, BT will be at the forefront of trying to claim whatever fills those nine weekends in the rugby calendar. And given they are certainly making all the right noises, that can only be a good thing for rugby fans wanting to watch as much of the action as possible.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43