PRO14 progressing towards SuperSport deal and looking beyond South Africa
By Simon Ward
The backers of the PRO14, the expanded northern hemisphere rugby union clubs competition, are close to concluding an agreement for matches to be broadcast in South Africa, which will have participating teams for the first time this season.
There is also renewed talk of expansion into other territories, possibly including major European markets such as Germany and Spain.
At the start of this month, tournament organiser Celtic Rugby and the South African Rugby Union signed off a six-year strategic agreement which will involve the Cheetahs, from Bloemfontein, and the Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings joining the sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
It is claimed that the entry of these teams will provide an additional financial boost of £6 million ($7.7 million) per year, a much-needed new revenue stream for a competition that has struggled to compete financially and in terms of profile with England’s top-tier Premiership Rugby and France’s Top 14.
Much of this money will come from broadcasting rights and SuperSport, the South African pay-television operator, is in the “advanced stage” of negotiations to show live matches, with just technicalities to be finalised and two weeks to go until kick-off.
The PRO12 has morphed into the PRO14, with the addition of the Cheetahs and Kings, which have been cut from the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby after governing body Sanzaar decided to reduce the size of that competition.
It is understood that the South African TV coverage will focus on the matches of the two local teams and SuperSport was always the prime candidate given its significant portfolio of rights in rugby, which includes South Africa home and away matches, Super Rugby and Premiership Rugby.
The returning broadcasters in the British Isles include pay-TV operator Sky in the UK and Ireland, public-service network the BBC in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, Welsh-language network S4C in Wales and Irish-language network TG4 in Ireland.
The PRO14 teams have been split into two conferences of seven, with the South African outfits kept apart, and the season gets under way on the evening of September 1 when Ulster host the Cheetahs in a game that will be shown live on BBC Two Northern Ireland and in South Africa.
There is hope that the Cheetahs and Kings will attract a larger following in the PRO14 than was the case in Super Rugby, boosted by the fact that matches will take place in the South African summer and, for those played in Europe, in a favourable time zone.
Jurie Roux, the chief executive of SA Rugby, told Sport24 last week: “It’s a different time of year and will not clash with other international competitions. There will be some clash with local competitions for the first year, but we will overcome that problem. I think there is genuine interest.”
There are also likely to be benefits for beer brand Guinness, the title sponsor of the PRO14, which is highly popular in Africa, and opportunities to attract new partners from the continent.
It has been reported that the four Welsh regional teams – defending champions Scarlets, Dragons, Ospreys and Cardiff Blues - will receive an extra £500,000 each from the expansion of the competition, with further revenue to be provided to cover the costs of travel to and from South Africa.
Mark Davies, the chief executive of Pro Rugby Wales, the body which represents the regions, told BBC Sport today: “We’ve got broadcast agreements in place in South Africa which are significant. That’s the first stage of the contribution to our clubs. It wouldn’t be sensible to then dilute that with additional travel costs.”
While noting the experience of Super Rugby, which was prompted to downsize from 18 to 15, with Perth’s Western Force axed together with the two South African teams, just two years after expansion, the organisers of the PRO14 see new markets as an obvious target to increase its profile and revenues.
Celtic Rugby has previously held exploratory talks with the rugby unions in USA and Canada and potential investors there about launching teams in its competition and Ospreys managing director Andrew Millward claimed this week that it could help develop the sport in attractive European markets.
He told Wales Online: "World Rugby know the territories they want to expand into at the right time would be Spain and Germany. The way the league is constructed gives the flexibility to look at that at the right time."
Davies concurs, saying: “One of the benefits of going to a conference structure is we can continue to grow the competition. It’s not a domestic league. We’ve always had four nations every weekend with different styles of rugby, different philosophies. So if we’ve got five nations every weekend, why can’t we have six?”
He also raised the prospect of additional South African teams, saying: “From a South African point of view, it would be sensible if they can continue to play New Zealand and Australia. They’ll want to retain both. They’re now in a position where they have a choice.
“Would they seek to have more teams playing in the northern hemisphere? I believe so. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have less playing in the southern hemisphere.”