Organisers of inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup beset by teething problems

Commercial partners have yet to be secured for the new competition while expected French TV rights deal has not yet materialised

Some three weeks or so later than was normally the case with the Heineken Cup, the allotment of pool weekends along with the dates, kick-off times and television coverage for the opening rounds of the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup will be belatedly announced tomorrow.

That the tardy announcement will only unveil specific timings for the opening two rounds rather than the first four weekends, is also somewhat indicative of the troubles which the organisers, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), have experienced since assuming command of the new tournaments last April.

Indeed, despite a further announcement at the end of May that EPCR were putting the French TV rights for the Champions Cup up for sale, and expectations that this would yield a deal in excess of €100 million over four years by the end of June, no such deal has materialised.

Similarly, there was the much trumpeted announcement in mid-June that X1X, the distribution giants who also sell the rights to football's European Champions League, had won the tender process to sell the commercial rights for the new tournaments.


Yet, although the Irish Times has learned that Heineken will renew their association with the blue riband of European club rugby as one of the prospective partners, none of the anticipated four or five commercial partners have thus far been signed up, while negotiations are merely ongoing with other prospective sponsors.

The scenes

With the interim EPCR director general Jacques Pineaux, formerly of Clermont Auvergne, apparently working on his own in their new offices in Neuchatel, Switzerland, much of the work behind the scenes is being conducted by the three vice-presidents who represent the three feeders leagues and make up the executive committee, namely Paul McNaughton (Pro12),

Bruce Craig

(Premiership) and

Rene Fontes

(Top 14).

The EPCR is also still searching for an independent chairman to head its 12-strong board, which is almost identical in make-up to the erstwhile board of the ERC.

In a richly ironic development, a further indication of the difficulties which EPCR have encountered is that they have been obliged to subcontract the running of the inaugural tournament to around 16 or 17 staff from the ERC, the very organisation which all the leading protagonists of the Anglo-French clubs’ breakaway had insisted should have no further hand in the tournament.

It will be recalled, for example, that the chairman of Premier Rugby, Quentin Smith, declared "there will no longer be a need for it" in reference to ERC, in branding the Dublin-based organisers of the Heineken Cup as "no longer fit for purpose".

As expected, a statement from EPCR yesterday confirmed that Twickenham is the uninspiring choice of venue for the 2015 final of the European Rugby Champions Cup on Saturday May 2nd, with the Stoop to host the European Rugby Challenge Cup final the night before. While the statement also declared these games to be "the two highest profile matches in the 2014/15 European club rugby calendar", the finals will be held on the first weekend in May, with the quarter-finals and semi-finals run off four and two weeks previously, in accordance with the agreement between all parties last April in face of French demands to give their Top 14 climax a clear run for the rest of May.

Commercial partners

However it is the more significant developments in


which, along with the failure to thus far secure any commercial partners in the preferred absence of one title sponsor ala Heineken, which may be of most concern to the new organisers. A fortnight ago, on foot of a complaint by rival pay-per-view broadcasters beIN Sport, a French court of arbitration declared the deal between France’s Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) and Canal+ for coverage of the Top 14, worth €350 million over five years, to be illegal.

Although the €70 million per year deal was allowed to stand for one year, LNR were ordered to launch a new tender process by next January for the rights to the Top 14 by the Autorité de la Concurrence, the French competition authority. There is a fear that this will focus LNR minds on domestic rather than European matters, with their reputed asking price for the new European Champions Cup of €27 million per year (compared to the €15 million previously raised by ERC) proving excessive. The organisers' joint deal with BT and Sky for televising matches in Britain and Ireland is reputedly worth €31 million per year.

On foot of confirming the IMG deal to sell broadcasting rights outside the six competing nations in mid-June, the aforementioned Craig, the multi-millionaire Bath owner who was a leading protagonist in the Anglo-French breakaway, declared: “IMG share our ambition and vision for these tournaments, and we look forward to working with them to ensure European professional club rugby reaches its potential in both established and emerging markets.”

“We are now heading into the October kick-off in a very strong commercial position and expect another significant announcement later this month when the competitive tender process to secure the broadcast rights for France is concluded.”

No such announcement has come to pass. Admittedly, the new organisers were always of a mind to settle for two or three commercial partners for the first year of the competition to equal the estimated €10 million per season previously paid by Heineken as title sponsors, but as with any French TV deal, ideally they want this all in place by the end of August.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times