RTÉ misses out on Ireland rugby semi-final bonanza after rights ‘gamble’

Virgin Media Television eyeing fresh viewing record for Ireland’s quarter-final Rugby World Cup defeat to New Zealand

RTÉ has missed out on a Rugby World Cup semi-final audience bonanza, while the total advertising revenue it earns from the event will also drop following Ireland’s defeat to New Zealand in the Stade de France on Saturday night.

Under its joint rights agreement with Virgin Media Television to the 48-game tournament, it was agreed that Virgin would exclusively show Ireland’s quarter-final if the team made it to the knock-out stages, while RTÉ would have exclusive rights to an Ireland semi-final if it made it that far.

Before Saturday night the most watched game of the tournament was the average audience of 1.22 million who watched Ireland’s pivotal pool game against South Africa on RTÉ2, with a further 267,000 streams on the RTÉ Player.

This narrowly eclipsed the viewership of Ireland against Scotland in the final pool game, which pulled in 1.19 million for Virgin Media Television and 107,000 streams on the Virgin Media Player. This marked the biggest audience in the broadcaster’s history, beating the 1.16 million who watched a Rugby World Cup game against France when Virgin’s predecessor TV3 had the rights to the 2015 tournament.


RTÉ's South Africa game is the most-watched programme on Irish television to date this year, although this may well have been overtaken by the quarter-final. The figures, compiled by research firm Nielsen for industry body TAM Ireland using a representative panel of homes, are due to become available on Monday.

Mick McCaffrey, Virgin’s head of news and sport, told the Irish Examiner ahead of Saturday that he was “quietly confident” that the broadcaster would set a new channel record for the quarter-final.

RTÉ group head of sport Declan McBennett, meanwhile, told the newspaper that the nature of the rights carve-up had been a “gamble”, adding that RTÉ would have had to sacrifice the South Africa game if it had pushed for the quarter-final, as Virgin would have wanted at least one of these two key games.

The partnership between RTÉ and Virgin follows their alliance on the television rights to the Six Nations. Virgin’s average audience of just over 1 million for Ireland’s Six Nations game against England was the most-watched programme in the first half of the year, underlining the importance of rugby to both broadcasters.

Ireland’s exit from the Rugby World Cup before the semi-final stage will also suppress the amount of advertising revenue RTÉ will earn next weekend.

According to a sales offer launched in June advertisers were set to pay €35,500 for a 30-second half-time ad in an Ireland semi-final, but only €23,500 for a semi-final in which the side does not feature. If Ireland had made the final, which will be shown by both broadcasters, the price of a half-time ad would have been €56,000, whereas now it will be €37,000.

Despite the loss of the Ireland semi-final, the Rugby World Cup will have helped shore up RTÉ's commercial revenues at a time when its public funding is under severe pressure following the recent collapse in licence fee sales and renewals.

RTÉ told the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee last week that its commercial performance was “good”, yet running down year-on-year by a single-digit percentage. It recorded commercial revenue of €152.1 million in 2022, with the September to December period typically being the months of the year when it brings in most money.

“We reforecast earlier in the year because there had been a fall in the commercial revenue,” said director general Kevin Bakhurst. “I would say the commercial revenue has been performing strongly over the past few months, so we are ahead of the reforecast. It is down year-on-year, but we are in a better position than we were a few months ago.”

Alongside a replacement for departed chief financial officer Richard Collins, the appointment of a new commercial director to succeed Geraldine O’Leary is “a priority appointment for the permanent leadership team”, Mr Bakhurst said.

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics