When the opening whistle of the 2022 men's Six Nations is blown at the Aviva Stadium on February 5th, it will mark a new era of unprecedented co-operation between two long-standing and often fierce rivals: RTÉ and Virgin Media.
"We put a call into Dee and she was up for it," Virgin Media Television managing director Paul Farrell said of Virgin's initial approach to Dee Forbes, RTÉ director-general, about the prospect of a joint bid for the rugby championship broadcast rights.
That first contact was in January 2021. Talks between RTÉ director of content Jim Jennings and VMTV head of news and sport Mick McCaffrey then led to an approach to the Six Nations last spring and "we all got to a good place", said Mr Farrell, before contract discussions were confirmed in May.
Amid optimism that the Government will allow full crowds at the Aviva from Ireland v Wales onwards, the mood at the launch event, hosted from the stadium by RTÉ's Jacqui Hurley and VMTV's Joe Molloy, was a far cry from the open devastation at Montrose in 2015, when Virgin, then known as TV3, snatched the men's Six Nations rights for the 2018-2021 period.
“Our hope was that we would get back there again at some stage, but you never know what is going to happen,” said Ms Forbes on Wednesday. “We’re delighted we’ve got a deal.”
Neither broadcaster fancied the economics of making a solo bid this time, preferring instead to “make the maths work”, keep the Six Nations free-to-air and bring the women’s and U20 tournaments into the same rights package as the men’s event.
While the BBC and ITV have commonly joined forces for UK sports rights, including the Guinness Six Nations, this is a departure for RTÉ and Virgin. The closest the two have come to working together on rights is when RTÉ sub-licensed TV3 some of the less popular Euro 2016 matches to help balance its books.
“The world of sports rights has become so competitive, the streaming services are putting so much money out there,” said Ms Forbes of Irish broadcasters’ new pragmatism. “We can’t do everything on our own.”
Even accounting for the inclusion of 15 women’s games and 15 U20 games, the price of the rights has gone up since TV3’s great grab in 2015. “There was inflation in the deal, absolutely,” Mr Farrell said.
In a sign of new maturity in the relationship between the State-owned RTÉ and the Liberty Global-owned Virgin, each broadcaster's coverage will cross-promote games shown by the other, while Vodafone has signed up as broadcast sponsor for both.
“That was one of the things we agreed at the start. To get behind the principle here and be seen as real partners, let’s get one sponsor who buys into that,” the VMTV boss said.
From this weekend, the hype will begin with a jointly produced promo aired by both broadcasters – although the RTÉ logo is first as viewers read the screen from left to right, the voiceover namechecks Virgin ahead of its old frenemy.
In the men’s Six Nations, RTÉ will show two Ireland games this year (Wales and England) and Virgin the other three, while in 2023, RTÉ will have three and Virgin two.
Originally a three-year contract – which would have meant devising “some kind of model to compensate who didn’t get the bulk of the Irish games” in year three – the deal has since been extended to four years, making the divvying out of Ireland games “much more clean”.
Style and tone
Virgin is keen to retain the “different style and different tone” it has developed for sports coverage, Mr Farrell added.
The Ballymount-based broadcaster is also permitted to run twice as many minutes of advertising per hour as RTÉ, while RTÉ – which charges more for ads than Virgin – is “happy”, according to Ms Forbes, to accept its lower minutage as part of its regulatory trade-off, in light of its direct receipt of 88 per cent of licence fee funds.
So is this the start of a beautiful friendship?
“On the one hand, I’d say yes, it should be,” Mr Farrell said, citing Virgin’s desire for more “transparency and collaboration” on funding and distribution. “On the other hand, I think we will always resist situations where the market is distorted or stacked against us.”
“Certainly, there is a willingness to have conversations,” said Ms Forbes of future joint rights bids. “It may not be appropriate all of the time.”