Unbeknownst to many, the 2021 Super Rugby season started on the 19th of February. It’s perfectly reasonable to not have noticed, considering rugby has moved to streaming service Stan with only one game a week televised on Nine’s secondary channel 9Gem. Recently, rugby’s battle for viewers with perennial heavyweights NRL and AFL has been a bit of a struggle, but its move to online streaming seems an admission of defeat in its ability to compete on television.
Rugby’s recent struggles for relevance have a lot to do with the waning quality of the product. Due to COVID the competition only has five teams, all from Australia, meaning the variety of opposition has been eradicated. While this means the Australian teams win a whole lot more often than when forced to play teams from New Zealand or South Africa, it does diminish the title of “Super Rugby Champions.”
Another big problem, especially when negotiating a TV rights deal, is that Sydney is rugby’s biggest market and NSW’s team, the Waratahs, are abjectly terrible. At time of writing, they have failed to win a single game and have lost their seven games by an average of 20 points. Ratings suggest that the Waratahs’ first match on 9Gem had only 26,000 Sydney viewers. By contrast, the NRL on Foxtel averaged 372,000 viewers per match on the opening weekend of the season.
Now these viewers don’t take into account those watching on Stan Sport, and frustratingly Stan don’t publicise how many subscribers they have or how many viewers watch each game. Stan Sport was advertised relentlessly throughout the summer in an attempt to prevent Australian rugby from slipping even further into obscurity. Channel Nine’s Australian Open coverage was as memorable for incessant Stan Sport advertising as it was for commentators insisting it was okay to support Nick Kyrgios again.
While the move to streaming may or may not save Australian rugby, it is part of a larger pattern of live sport moving online. Since 2016, most international football has only been watchable (legally) through Optus Sport. Earlier this year, relative unknown Sports Flick launched a AU$60 million takeover of the UEFA Champions League rights from next season. Foxtel has launched Kayo to play the role of an online version of a standard television subscription to Fox Sports.
This transition to streaming does have some benefits. The more sports that negotiate broadcast deals outside of traditional television structures lessens the monopoly of large organisations like News Corp, who own Foxtel. Of course, Stan Sport is owned by Nine-Fairfax so it is not really fighting the battle for the little guys.
But this is clearly outweighed on an individual level by the financial pressures placed on sports fans to subscribe to new streaming services. Foxtel’s most basic plan that includes sport is $50/month. Kayo starts at $25. Currently, Stan Sport is only available to Stan subscribers for an extra $10/month meaning the real cost is about $25. Optus Sport is $15. Sports Flick suggests that theirs will be no more than $10 which seems most reasonable until you realise that other than the Champions League the next best offering on their platform is probably Indian baseball.
These micro-deals with smaller streaming networks can also impact the quality of the sport. For example, Rugby Australia’s last broadcast deal was worth around $57 million per year. Their current deal with Stan is worth only $33 million per year. This means that RA is unable to offer larger contracts to its players to play domestically so star players like Michael Hooper have chased big bucks in places like Japan. This not only hurts the domestic competition but also the Wallabies due to archaic rules about player eligibility.
It might be a good thing for Sydneysiders to not pay attention to the restart of Super Rugby, otherwise they’d be forced to reflect on how even though they’re potentially paying more to watch rugby, all their best players have left. But while both the Waratahs and the Wallabies remain as hopeless as they are, I can’t see too many people knocking on Stan’s door for a subscription.