Competition over Top 14 television rights allows French clubs to cash in
Canal Plus to broadcast games for next five years at average cost of €71m a season
Castres players celebrate with the Bouclier de Brennus after winning the Top 14 final against Toulon last June. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty
At one stage, the fight for the rights to broadcast domestic rugby in France had threatened to get messy.
In one corner was Canal Plus, the encrypted channel that has been covering the Top 14 since 1995. In the other was BeIN Sport, the Qatari newcomers set up by Al Jazeera, who have dramatically changed the landscape since their arrival in France three years ago.
Owned and operated by Qatari Sports Investments – who bought reigning French soccer champions Paris Saint-Germain in 2011 – BeIN has already hoovered up the rights for dozens of major leagues with a seemingly endless well of resources.
In 18 months they garnered over 1.5 million subscribers and, having decimated Canal’s football coverage, BeIN set its sights on France’s second most popular sport. In the middle were the French clubs, represented by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) who dreamed of tripling the €31.7 million sum they received from Canal Plus this season.
As permitted in an agreement dating from 2011, the LNR announced last month that they were ending Canal Plus’s current deal two years early. They began negotiating a new contract with the station, who were willing to offer as much as €66m per season. The only problem was that the figure became public and the LNR announced it as the reserve price at which the Top 14 TV rights would be put out to tender.
Wary of the financial muscle of BeIN, Canal Plus announced that they were taking the LNR to court over an unfair negotiation process. A date was fixed for January 28th, only for the LNR to withdraw the appel d’offres last Friday.
The climbdown was completed by a surprise announcement on Tuesday, in which the LNR confirmed a new €355m package. Under its terms, Canal Plus will continue to broadcast the Top 14 for the next five years, at an average cost of €71m per season.
It represents quite a turnaround from three years ago when, without competition from BeIN, the LNR could only squeeze an extra €2 million per season from Canal. This time LNR president Paul Goze pointed out average crowds had risen from less than 3,000 in 1999 to more than 15,000 today, while the sport had 100,000 more television viewers than in 2000.
For Vincent Chaudel, a sports finance expert with Kurt Salmon in Paris, the new deal reflects the sport’s growth in the country and will reassure owners. The relatively even distribution of the money will instantly relieve the pressure on many teams.
“Unlike football in France, Top 14 clubs aren’t dependent on television,” Chaudel told The Irish Times yesterday. “TV rights make up between 20-30 per cent of their budgets, depending on the club, so it’s quite reasonable.
“The increase of rights money will automatically raise that share to around 30-40 per cent for certain clubs or it will allow them to have the means to develop their future revenue.”
With a salary cap of €10m for the next couple of seasons and an obligation to include products of French academies, the big sharks in the Top 14 may not benefit from the deal as much as some of the lesser lights.
Predictably enough, the often-provocative Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal was quick to call for more successful clubs to get a bigger share of the proceeds.
“At the LNR everyone is delighted with the situation, but if we got here it’s because of the risks that certain owners took,” he told La Provence.
“The money has to be redistributed in a rational manner. If this criteria isn’t given priority, I’ll oppose the broadcast of Toulon matches at the Stade Mayol . . . and I’m even ready to not take part in the Top 14 and, in this way, boycott the competition.”
Another rich owner also had a gripe about Tuesday’s announcement. Jacky Lorenzetti, president of Jonny Sexton’s Racing Metro, said that he was disappointed a bidding process had not taken place.
“BeIN were perhaps not aggressive enough,” he told Rugby365.fr yesterday. “But the result is there – it’s a leap forward.”