Champions Cup international rights picture nears completion for kick-off
By Simon Ward
The organisers of the Heineken Champions Cup are hopeful of a larger and broader audience for the rebranded elite European rugby clubs competition on the back of multiple new international rights deals, and with agreements still to be concluded in some target markets.
The 2018-19 tournament gets under way on Friday, with European Professional Club Rugby and RDA, the UK-based sports media rights agency that has been marketing the international rights, buoyed by recent four-year deals with the likes of Spark in New Zealand and DAZN in Austria, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and Switzerland.
EPCR and RDA are looking to build on an international broadcasting footprint that enabled last season’s final between Leinster of Ireland and France’s Racing 92 to be shown in 115 countries.
While deals have been concluded in most of the key European growth markets and major rugby playing countries, it is understood that negotiations are ongoing in Russia, the Middle East and North Africa and Latin America to secure coverage this season and beyond.
Having finalised deals for the next four years in the countries of the participating clubs, notably with pay-television operator BT Sport in the UK and Ireland (with selected free-to-air coverage on Channel 4 and Virgin respectively), and in France with counterpart BeIN Sports (with France Télévisions as the free-to-air partner), EPCR appointed RDA to sell international rights to the Champions Cup and second-tier Challenge Cup.
However, the rights to the Champions Cup in the strategically important market of USA were carved out, and awarded to national network NBC, in a four-year deal announced in March that will entail more than 150 hours of TV and streaming coverage this season.
Talks with other broadcasters continued over the summer, and deals have been finalised in the last few weeks.
In addition to Spark and DAZN, whose deal also includes the Challenge Cup, confirmed media partners for the 2018-19 season include: Rugby Pass, in a four-year deal, in Australia and Southeast Asia; SuperSport, in a renewal, in South Africa; Telefónica in Spain; Sport TV in Portugal; Go in Malta; Rugby TV in Georgia; TV Arena Sport in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia; and SportsMax in the Caribbean.
In a statement today, EPCR said: "Fans are advised to check listings in their territory for confirmed coverage schedules. Several negotiations in other territories are still ongoing with EPCR’s international rights agency RDA and updates will be communicated on HeinekenChampionsCup.com."
The outstanding territories are not insignificant given that Russia, the Middle East and Argentina were among the markets identified as potential areas of growth when the organisers drew up their strategy for international media coverage through to 2021-22.
In the last cycle, when international rights were distributed by IMG, Russia was included in the pan-European deal with Eurosport, while BeIN Sports offered coverage in the Middle East and North Africa, and ESPN Latin America was the rights-holder in South America.
The extensive international exposure for the Champions Cup will be welcomed by Heineken, the Dutch beer brewer, as it returns as the title sponsor in a four-year deal starting this season.
The company had been the sole title sponsor of the competition’s predecessor, known simply as the Heineken Cup, but was reduced to the status of an official partner when the European club competitions were revamped, under the auspices of EPCR, ahead of the 2014-15 campaign.
ECPR had originally planned a reformed commercial structure based on that of soccer’s Uefa Champions League, which does not have a main partner, with up to six sponsors at the same level, but a challenging economic environment for rugby prompted a change of tack.
On Wednesday, the Financial Times, the UK-based business newspaper, was unveiled as a new third-tier official supporter of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, in a four-year deal.
The 2019 finals of the two competitions take place at St James' Park in Newcastle, England on 10 and 11 May respectively.