Both rugby codes – rugby league and rugby union – have seen the UK broadcast rights values for their domestic club competitions fall, or stagnate at best, after achieving record deals prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rugby League: Super League

In 2014, the Super League, the top tier of rugby league in the UK, signed a record domestic rights deal with broadcaster Sky Sports, the UK pay-TV broadcaster, worth £200 million ($251.2 million) over five years.

Running from the 2017 season to 2021, the deal saw Sky Sports show over 80 live Super League regular season matches, every playoff game, the Grand Final, every World Club Challenge match, as well as selected games from the Challenge Cup, rugby league’s knock-out competition, and the second-tier Championship.

The last two seasons of the deal were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. This resulted in the Super League clubs agreeing to a reduction of around £280,000 each in funding for the 2021 season in a revised deal with Sky in 2020.

In 2021, Sky renewed its rights deal with Super League for two more seasons. The extension, which covered the 2022 and 2023 campaigns, saw Sky show more than 80 live matches per year, including the playoffs, Grand Final, and Challenge Cup.

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Sky is believed to have paid around £25 million per season for the contract, a significant reduction from the £40 million per season it was paying previously. However, the deal did not include rights to the Championship, which were acquired by pay-TV rival Premier Sports in a two-year deal covering the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

In 2022, the Super League and the Rugby Football League, the governing body for rugby league in England, realigned and formed a new joint venture company called Rugby League Commercial (RLC). Soon after, RLC announced a 12-year strategic partnership with Endeavor-owned international sports marketing agency IMG to “reimagine” the sport and its competitions in the UK.

As part of the long-term tie-up, IMG is working with the newly combined entity on “strategically repositioning the sport to maximize its commercial potential for long-term growth, build deeper relationships with fans, and attract new audiences.”

The agency is initially focusing on competition restructuring, content production and innovation, domestic and international distribution of media rights, digital transformation powered by its digital sports arm (formerly Seven League), brand strategy delivered by Endeavor’s cultural marketing agency 160over90, and streaming through Endeavor’s over-the-top platform Endeavor Streaming.

As part of a second phase of work, IMG will also provide data collection and data-driven product development, including sports betting products and streaming rights via its sports data and technology business IMG Arena.

At the end of 2023, and in the first media deal since the strategic partnership, Sky extended its long-running partnership with the Super League for a further three years that will run through to the end of the 2026 season.

The renewed agreement will see Sky broadcast live every Super League fixture across its channels and platforms, totaling around 170 games each year. This will include Magic Weekend fixtures, playoffs, and all three Grand Finals – Men’s, Women’s, and Wheelchair. The agreement is believed to be worth around £21.5 million per season, representing a fall of 14% on the previous deal.

However, the deal allowed RLC to retain the ability to distribute the league across other platforms, including free-to-air broadcast opportunities and a dedicated streaming platform, and thus, opening new revenue streams for the Super League.

Subsequently, RLC has agreed a three-year deal with UK public-service broadcaster the BBC to cover the Super League. The deal, which marks the first time the BBC will have shown the competition, involves live coverage of 15 games per season across the platform, made up of 10 on television and the rest on the BBC iPlayer streaming service, and the BBC Sport website.

With free-to-air coverage expected to draw larger audiences, the Super League plans to capitalize on the commercial opportunities for sponsors.

In addition, RLC recently launched a new direct-to-consumer streaming service called SuperLeague+. The platform will cover all 167 matches from the 2024 season live in overseas markets, while in the UK, customers will be able to watch 106 games live, while the other 61 will be shown via delayed coverage and on-demand.

The service allows the Super League to generate revenue from not only subscription fees, but also advertising inventory, such as commercial ads, break bumpers, and banners.

So, while the value per season in the latest media rights deal has declined, live coverage of every single Super League game across various platforms creates significant commercial opportunity that RLC must now seek to exploit.

Table 1: Super League rights cycle and value

2009 – 20113Sky50.0016.67
2012 – 20165Sky90.0018.008.0%
2017 – 20215Sky200.0040.00122.2%
2022 – 20232Sky50.0025.00-37.5%
2024 – 20263Sky64.5021.50-14.0%

Rugby union: Premiership Rugby

In 2015, Premiership Rugby, the top tier of rugby union in England, signed a record domestic rights deal with pay-TV broadcaster TNT Sports (then BT Sport) worth £160 million over four years from the 2017-18 season to 2020-21.

Under the terms of the contract, TNT showed up to 80 live matches per season, compared with 69 previously, along with extended highlights of all 135 matches per year. Once again, live coverage of the annual Premiership Rugby 7s Series was included in the package.

At the end of 2018, Premiership Rugby concluded a deal with private equity firm CVC Capital Partners to invest around £230 million into the league. In return, CVC will receive a minority shareholding in the league, understood to total about 27%, and focus its attention on Premiership Rugby’s commercial activities such as sponsorship and broadcasting.

At the end of 2020 and amidst the pandemic, TNT renewed its rights deal with Premiership Rugby until at least 2024. Under the three-year extension, the broadcaster will continue to offer up to 80 live games per season – 69 from Premiership Rugby and 11 from the Premiership Rugby Cup.

With TNT deciding against pursuing a rebate for the Covid-hit 2019-20 season, the contract is reported to be worth £110 million, or £36.67 million per season, 8.3% below the previous deal average of £40 million per annum.

There had been indications that TNT, which has shown the Premiership since 2013, was in danger of losing the rights, with an exclusive negotiating period having passed and the league having rejected an earlier offer.

With the present rights cycle ending at the end of the 2023-24 season, the expectation is that any new broadcast deal will bring in less income than the current arrangement due to the current economic climate and cost of living crisis, the loss of three teams – Worcester Warriors, Wasps, and London Irish – meaning less choice for matches, lack of competitive tension in the market, and potential discount in value as a compromise to no rebates for the Covid-hit seasons and smaller league.

With CVC having expanded the reach of the league through a free-to-air television deal with ITV, set up a new DTC streaming service named PRTV Live, and increased sponsorship, the question remains how CVC will grow the broadcasting rights.

A recent article in The Telegraph explained how. CVC believes rugby union as a sport is undervalued, which is not helped by the fragmented nature of the game. Having already attained a 27% stake in Premiership Rugby, CVC has acquired 28% of the United Rugby Championship (formerly the Pro14) for £120 million and invested up to £365 million in the Six Nations rugby tournament in return for a stake of just over 14% in the commercial rights.

CVC believes it can score a return on investment by growing the value of media rights through bundling the rights for Premiership Rugby and the United Rugby Championship, possibly with the EPCR Champions Cup, Six Nations, and the new Nations Championship together in a single package.

Table 2: Premiership Rugby rights cycle and value

2010 – 20133Sky, ESPN49.0016.33
2013 – 20174BT Sport152.0038.00132.7%
2017 – 20214BT Sport160.0040.005.3%
2021 – 20243TNT Sports¹110.0036.67-8.3%
¹ The 2021 – 2024 deal was initially with BT Sport who rebranded to TNT Sports in July 2023.