England solo deal plunges European game into chaos

 

RUGBY:Conflicting TV deals signed by the ERC, on the one hand, and Premiership Rugby put the future of the Heineken Cup in doubt. GERRY THORNLEYreports

AN UNSEEMLY mess, and with it a potentially unholy legal wrangle over conflicting Heineken Cup television rights deals, reverberated through European rugby yesterday. The ERC in particular, were stunned at the announcement by Premiership Rugby of an exclusive four-year television contract with BT worth up to £180 million (€225m) and which, critically, includes selling the rights to prospective European matches from 2014-15 onwards.

This, in turn, prompted the Heineken Cup’s governing body to bring forward an announcement regarding a new ERC four-year television deal with Sky Sports from 2014 onwards. They would normally have kept this under wraps until around the launches of the Heineken and Amlin Cups in October, but Premiership Rugby’s conflicting deal prompted them to bring forward that announcement.

To make these developments even more confusing, the ERC decision to extend the long-standing relationship with Sky until the end of the 2017/18 season – a 15th year – was unanimously agreed at the last ERC board meeting on June 6th, by all 12 representatives from the six founding unions/federations and the six various club/provincial structures. This included Premiership Rugby board member Peter Wheeler.

Furthermore, yesterday’s ERC board meeting reaffirmed that only the tournament’s governing body, as opposed to individual shareholders, is entitled to sell television rights to games in its two flagship competitions.

Accordingly, another ERC statement yesterday afternoon “raised questions over a purported deal by Premiership Rugby to sell the UK broadcast rights to European club rugby tournaments. While awaiting further information regarding Premiership Rugby’s proposed agreement with BT, the ERC Board, which met in Dublin yesterday, believes any such agreement would be in breach both of IRB regulations and of a mandate from the ERC board itself.” The statement continued: “European club rugby’s six participant unions have granted the authority to sell broadcast rights to its tournaments solely to ERC”, before noting, in relation to their new four-year deal with Sky, “Premiership Rugby was party to that decision.”

The timing of yesterday’s revelation by Premiership Rugby can also be seen as deliberately provocative, coming on the day of an ERC board meeting and a week before next Tuesday’s ERC shareholders meeting.

The latter is the first shareholders’ meeting to discuss the ramifications of the English and French clubs serving notice of their intent to leave the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup after the 2013-14 season unless there are changes to the competitions’ governance and qualification format.

The English and French clubs are on record as saying they want the Heineken Cup to be reduced from 24 teams to 20 and qualification to be based on finishing positions in the three leagues that supply the sides: namely the top six apiece from the Premiership, Top 14 and RaboDirect Pro 12 along with the respective winners of the Heineken and Amlin Cups.

This would endanger the participation of all European shareholders, notably the Italians and Scots, which in turn would have ramifications for the Six Nations and the pan-European game.

Premiership Rugby insists the European element of its BT deal (which, in its breathtaking arrogance doesn’t even specify whether the “deal” applies only to English home matches, but presumably this is the case given it’s hard to see how even they believe they can sell games in Toulouse or Limerick involving English clubs) will not go straight to the English clubs.

“It will be put into the pot,” a spokesman said yesterday. “Our aim is to increase the share for everyone and this deal is excellent for the game in Europe.”

The ERC board and the other ERC shareholders will not see it this way and, apparently, even the English RFU were not aware of their clubs’ exclusive deal with BT. Ironically, yesterday’s development has echoes of the English RFU’s “exclusive” deal with Sky for live broadcasting of England’s Five Nations games in 1997, which took the tournament to the very brink of continuing without England until a financial compromise was reached.

In what is likely to become another agitated and drawn-out process, the very future of the Heineken Cup, or the participation of the English clubs, now comes into question.

The English clubs’ deal would permit BT exclusive rights to screen up to 69 Premiership matches a season from September 2013 as well as European matches, whether the English clubs are in the Heineken Cup from 2014-15 or, as they alone have mooted, whether there’s an Anglo-French Cup.

Significantly, after Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty’s sabre-rattling a couple of weeks ago when declaring his frustration with the way ERC were “dragging their heels”, his counterparts at the LNR (the umbrella group for the Top 14) publicly suggested he needn’t talk for them as well.

But it will be interesting to see the response of the other shareholders, namely the Six Unions or federations, and particularly the LNR, as McCafferty and the Premiership clubs looked isolated yesterday.

BT Vision is a subscription digital TV service offered by the BT (British Telecom) Group in the United Kingdom which was launched in December 2006 as a rival to BSkyB Virgin Media. As of June 2012 it had an estimated 728,000 subscribers.

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