Rugby World Cup: Cost of showing sport a big bill for pubs

Some pubs need to sell roughly 440 pints a month to cover the cost of TV subscriptions

If there's one thing a World Cup brings about – whether football or rugby – it's the novelty of watching live sport at times when you'd usually be doing other things. For this Rugby World Cup it'll be a case of watching the drama unfold while you're having your breakfast due to the eight-hour time difference between Ireland and Japan.

What that also offers is the opportunity for pubs to pull in some business at times when they’d usually have the doors closed. While there won’t be customers packing out bars countrywide at 8am in the morning, for spots around busy parts of Dublin there’s money to be made in breakfasts, tea and coffee. But the law states that alcohol cannot be served until 10.30am from Monday to Saturday and midday on Sundays.

Early licences are increasingly rare and there’s no way of getting anything like a special temporary permit for events such as the Rugby World Cup. Around Dublin there are some early houses allowed to serve from 7am – such as the Wind Jammer or the Chancery Inn – but those are old licences from the days when certain pubs could open early to facilitate people working on the docks.

For the Rugby World Cup in Japan it’ll be a case of non-alcoholic drinks only everywhere else. But if there’s enough of an appetite from customers in the local area, pubs will take the chance to open and bring in some extra business. After all, they have to get value from their TV subscriptions.

The cost of showing live sport is a sizeable bill for pubs around the country and many have decided to cut back in recent years because they can’t justify it. Ahead of the current Premier League season, Sky became the exclusive distributors of BT Sport and Premier Sport in Ireland, meaning that the number of subscriptions a pub needed, if they wanted all of the available live sport, became just two with Eir Sport being the other.

Sky’s subscription rates for pubs work on the basis of the business’s turnover. There are six different rates and pubs will be charged depending on how much money they make each year. The top rate, for pubs which turn over more than €1.27 million per year, is €2,002 per month for Sky’s Ultimate Package which includes BT Sport and Premier Sport. For Eir Sport it’s another €500 per month meaning that, over a year, a large pub will be forking out more than €30,000 to show all available live sport.

On the other end of the scale, a small pub which turns over less than €190,500 every year will pay €932 per month or €11,184 per year and that’s before they decide whether or not to add on Eir Sport. Incidentally, for any pubs planning to open early to show the Rugby World Cup, Eir is the only broadcaster showing all 48 matches.

The Back Page in Phibsborough is a popular sports pub which has been open since 2014. With 10 televisions and two large projector screens it is a particularly busy bar in a well-populated area. It falls into Band F in terms of Sky’s pricing and, as manager Ian Alvey explains, even for a pub which is so popular, it can be hard to get the value out of TV subscriptions.

“Now that all the subscriptions have come together we’re actually paying more for it with their argument being that we’re now getting more matches which is true. But the thing for us is that some of those matches are the likes of Watford v Brighton which won’t bring a whole lot of people in,” he says.

“For our business it definitely goes pints, pizzas, sport in terms of importance. If we got rid of it we’d definitely lose a lot of revenue here at the Back Page but if I was a smaller pub and you’re paying those rates it must be very hard to make money on it. Prices are increasing but we’re not getting an increase in revenue. If anything I’ve noticed it’s only the bigger matches people are now coming in for because with good broadband at home, and streams, people are watching more matches sitting at home.

“We’re definitely profitable which is good but our fixed costs have definitely gone up this year. With Sky, insurance costs and that we’ll probably take a knock this year. TV subscriptions are now our biggest weekly costs apart from staff.”

With all 233 televised Premier League games now available under the one Sky package as well as Champions League, Europa League, Champions Cup rugby and a whole lot more there is more sport than ever to watch on the television. But having more sport on the TV doesn’t always translate to business for a pub and Alvey says that even somewhere like the Back Page would, if the costs were broken down, be making a loss on most matches they show.

“Definitely [making a loss]. The only ones that are pulling in a lot of people would be Premier League, Irish fixtures which are free to air anyway and big rugby internationals which are also free to air. So if I was a smaller publican I’d probably be saying let’s just go the Saorview route here and just show the big stuff.”

That cutting back is something which more pubs are beginning to do. Michael O’Donovan is the manager at the Castle Inn in Cork and, 13 years ago, he made the decision to cut subscription television.

“I installed back then one of the first freeview European set-top boxes so I was able to pick up channels across Europe,” he says. “I couldn’t show Premier League matches or Heineken Cup matches but for me it was the cost factor and I knew even back then that the cost of Sky television or subscription television was only going to go one way. And that was up because if they’re paying the stars in England and across Europe exorbitant wages I knew that it would have to be passed onto the customer. When you’re in the pub game the bottom line is that you have to watch your margins. So for a smaller business like ourselves we have to be creative. So we took it out and went down the route of when there’s big matches on, if you want a bit of peace and tranquillity to get away from matches we offer that service.”

O’Donovan says he worked out at the time that he was having to sell about four extra kegs per month to cover the costs of his TV subscriptions. For somewhere like the Back Page on the highest band rate, the cost of Sky and Eir Sport every month works out at just under five full kegs of beer if you take the price of a pint at an average of €6. In total that’s 440 pints per month just to cover TV costs.

While Alvey says on a busy match day in the Back Page they may sell up to 2,000 pints that’s far from the reality from most pubs around the country and it’s the main reason O’Donovan cut the cord at the Castle Inn in 2006. Since doing so he says that they have been successfully able to market themselves as somewhere to avoid people looking to watch a match.

“Whenever there’s a big match on Sky, especially during November, December, January, February, people would be out shopping or going for a few drinks and they just want somewhere that’s quieter . . . It’s worked unbelievably and we were shocked by it to be honest.”

A recent letter published in the Irish Times in response to an article on “Five pubs in Dublin city centre to watch the match” backed up the idea of pubs not showing sport. The reader noted that “I would respectfully suggest that proper Dublin pubs are ones where you cannot watch the Premier League”.

Undoubtedly there will still be plenty of people looking for a pint to watch the big match but, with less people going to pubs around the country, perhaps showing every available bit of live sport is simply becoming too costly for many.

Price per month for Sky Ultimate including Sports Extra in pubs (rate band, turnover, cost per month)

A - Under €190,500 - €932 per month

B - €190,500 to €380,999 - €1,170 per month

C - €381,000 to €634,999 - €1,136 per month

D - €635,000 to €952,499 - €1,409 per month

E - €952,500 to €1,269,999 - €1,729 per month

F- €1,270,000 or more - €2,002 per month

– This article is part of a series of consumer-based sports stories. If you have any queries, stories or issues regarding travel, tickets, sport on television or anything else you can email or via Twitter @Ruaidhri_Croke.