No more live PRO14 on BBC Wales as rights talks continue
By Simon Ward
The BBC, the public-service broadcaster, has revealed it will no longer be showing live matches from the PRO14 rugby union competition in Wales from next season, raising the prospect of a largely pay-television deal for the UK.
Free-to-air rights to the PRO14 in Wales are presently shared by BBC Wales and S4C, the Welsh-language commercial network.
However, BBC Wales announced today that, in spite of making an increased offer, it had failed to reach a deal to continue showing the competition, which involves three teams from Wales (Cardiff Blues, Dragons and Scarlets), and others from Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and now South Africa.
S4C, for its part, has declined to comment on what it said were “ongoing commercial negotiations.”
There has already been confirmation that pay-TV operator Sky is ending its coverage in the UK and Ireland of the PRO14 at the end of the 2017-18 season, with the Irish pay-TV rights set to pass to Eir Sport, formerly known as Setanta Sports.
It has been reported that Premier Sports, a channel hitherto more closely aligned with rugby league, is in pole position to acquire the pay-TV rights in the UK, but a deal has yet to be concluded, and it is understood there could yet be some free-to-air coverage.
PRO14 said today that it had “overseen a highly-competitive tender process with multiple pay and free-to-air operators” in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and that deals would be announced in due course.
While a tie-up with Premier Sports would have the advantage of making the Guinness PRO14 the main rugby union offering on a UK channel, the broadcaster has far fewer customers than Sky or its main pay-TV rival BT Sport.
However, Premier Sports recently launched Freesports, a free-to-air channel, which could help to satisfy sponsors' appetite for exposure.
BBC Wales has lamented the loss of PRO14 rights, saying in a statement: “We're proud of our record of covering live PRO14 rugby across television, radio and online and we offered a significantly increased financial bid in order to safeguard these rights on a free-to-air basis for hundreds of thousands of viewers in Wales, and across the UK.
“We know there will be a real disappointment at this outcome among hundreds of thousands of rugby fans who have enjoyed live free-to-air coverage on the BBC over many years.”
The broadcaster added that it hoped to be able to continue showing highlights of games on Sunday evenings, and would be seeking negotiations with the tournament organisers in the hope of securing a deal.
Elsewhere in the UK, free-to-air coverage is presently provided by BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Alba, the Gaelic-language channel of BBC Scotland.
The PRO14 coffers were boosted this season by deals with Eurosport, the international sports broadcaster, covering Italy and 37 other European territories, and SuperSport, the South African pay-TV operator, after the addition of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings from that particular market.
While it has yet to announce deals for 2018-19, PRO14 issued a statement on its website today, saying: “After the successful expansion into South Africa the Guinness PRO14 is continuing to grow in strength with unprecedented interest leading to rising attendances, increased broadcast viewers and an upsurge in social media engagement.
“As PRO14 Rugby plans for the exciting seasons ahead, the Championship has overseen a highly-competitive tender process with multiple pay and free-to-air operators across the UK and Republic of Ireland bidding for the broadcast rights in those territories.
“PRO14 Rugby is currently concluding negotiations for these rights ahead of the 2018/19 season and will confirm the final position to partners and supporters once the formal agreements are in place.”
The 2017-18 campaign concludes with the final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on 26 May.