The outcome is a stalemate set against a backdrop of unprecedented tension over the rights negotiations for Super Rugby and the Wallabies from 2021.
Of the four-nation SANZAAR joint venture, which operates Super Rugby and the Test-level Rugby Championship, Australia is the last major partner to finalise its deal, having chosen to enter into a competitive market process for the first time in the history of the game.
RA wants to have the new deal announced by the end of March, but it cannot start the bidding process without knowing whether it is selling the Shute Shield or not.
Fox, meanwhile, fuming that RA did not accept its initial offer to extend their 25-year partnership, is trying to cut the governing body out of the process and secure some presence in the sport. News Corp reported late on Wednesday that Fox had decided not to bid for the 2021-2025 rights. An RA spokesman said the governing body had not been notified of any such decision.
Some observers noted the broadcaster could be interested in disrupting RA’s plan to pitch a whole-of-game offering, potentially reducing the value of the overall rights package RA might sell to a rival such as Optus.
The decision rests with the Sydney Rugby Union (SRU) and NSW Rugby Union (NSWRU), which jointly control the Shute Shield and have a partnership with the Seven Network and Club Rugby TV, which is owned by Nick Fordham and John Murray, and runs until the end of 2024.
The two organisations are under pressure to make a choice between RA and Fox Sports, which, as revealed on Wednesday by the Herald, is offering a five-year deal to broadcast live a match of the round on a Fox Sports channel and stream every other Saturday game live on Kayo Sports, with dedicated camera crews at each suburban venue. The deal would come into effect in time for this season, which starts in April.
Under the Fox proposal, which was set out in a letter dated January 31 and obtained by the Herald, all finals matches would be broadcast on the main channel, while the match of the day would be shown on 7TWO or 7MATE on delay in order to maintain the competition’s free-to-air exposure.
It effectively buys out Club Rugby TV, the organisation that breathed new life into the Shute Shield by moving the final to North Sydney Oval and securing a regular free-to-air broadcast time slot, but has also attracted criticism for placing a six-figure financial burden on the Sydney clubs each year.
The terms of the deal state the SRU must pay $250,000 to the Seven Network for broadcasting and advertising as well as $50,000 to Club Rugby TV for production costs. In the early years of the agreement, RA and the NSWRU picked up the shortfall and last year RA came to the rescue again.
RA has not outlined its specific plan for the club competitions but believes it can deliver a solid financial outcome for the Sydney and Brisbane clubs by selling them as part of a 35-weeks-a-year, whole-of-game package, at the same time safeguarding the integrity of the two competitions in the long term. It is also offering to buy out Club Rugby TV in time for the start of this season, even though its bigger broadcast package would start in 2021.
“Rugby Australia’s preparations for the next five year rights period have led to a key focus on creating alignment across the rugby competitions in Australia,” a spokesman said.
“Our strategy is to provide an integrated ‘whole of rugby’ presentation to our fans and, importantly, we are confident that there is real interest from the market in this content.
“This focus is designed to ensure that our fans can easily engage in rugby at all levels and will provide enhanced coverage and access to elite competitions.
“RA recognises the importance of the state premier club competitions and is focused on how they can be further supported and developed.”
Senior rugby sources told the Herald that Fox Sports had also made an offer to buy the rights to the Hospital Cup, but that the Queensland Rugby Union, which controls the competition and currently broadcasts its games for free in partnership with Double Take Sports, has indicated it will stick with RA. The QRU declined to comment when contacted by the Herald.
That would be a blow for Fox Sports, which has spent the past five years cultivating its presence in both competitions. In 2018 – the same year RA first circulated a strategy paper outlining its plans to put greater emphasis on the club competitions and potentially combine them – Fox Sports started showing a replay of a Shute Shield game each week and by the end of the Brisbane season there was also a Hospital Cup game being replayed on a Wednesday night.
Fox Sports has been synonymous with rugby for 25 years, after parent company News Corp created the Super Rugby competition as the showpiece of its new sports-only pay television venture. Super Rugby and Wallabies Tests were subscription-drivers for the company.
The broadcast industry is now reeling from the disruptive forces of streaming services and new entrants such as Optus and Amazon, which has precipitated a subscriber exodus from Fox Sports and subsequent cost-cutting across all of its departments.
But many believe rugby is still crucial to Fox maintaining its shrinking subscriber base, which makes the broadcaster’s play for the Shute Shield particularly fascinating.
Georgina Robinson is the chief rugby reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.