The inaugural season of the United Rugby Championship, the revamped Europe-based rugby union clubs competition, has been hailed a success after setting broadcast records for the regular season, playoffs, and the final.

The 2021-22 season of the 16-team competition formerly known as the Pro14 was supported by free-to-air (FTA) broadcasters in the UK (BBC Wales, S4C, BBC Northern Ireland), Ireland (RTE, TG4), and Italy (Mediaset), and by leading pay television operators SuperSport (South Africa), Spark Sport (New Zealand), and Premier Sports (UK and Ireland).

According to Nielsen Sports, the audience for the entire 2021-22 URC season reached 34.6 million across its more than 7,000 hours of coverage, up 169% compared to the previous Pro14 and Rainbow Cup campaigns combined.

The cumulative average per game audience during the season was 230,000, up 109% year-on-year (YoY), while the cumulative audience figure of 2.89 million marked the highest audience for a single round in the league’s history during Round Three of the season.

In total, four rounds eclipsed an audience of 2 million, seven rounds drew more than 1.5 million, and six of the remaining seven rounds all attracted a minimum viewership of 1 million.

Taken as an average across the whole regular season, the average audience per round was 1.7 million. The Italian market registered its largest ever audience, with a cumulative viewership of 1.6 million.

The most watched game in the regular season was Cell C Sharks’ 32-17 win over Ospreys, which saw a combined audience of more than 581,000 tune in across BBC Wales, SuperSport, and Premier Sports.

The grand final, meanwhile, saw 1.25 million tune in to watch DHL Stormers beat Vodacom Bulls to win the title and set a record for the flagship match.

The playoffs also set a record for viewership, with a cumulative audience of 3.8 million across the seven games. DHL Stormers' win over Ulster in the semi-final drew the biggest audience with more than 750,000 viewers, while Leinster’s defeat at the same stage to Vodacom Bulls drew 472,000.

Including the final, the average audience per game in the postseason was 537,000.

Martin Anayi, URC chief executive, said: “We are blown away by the broadcast audiences in the first season of the United Rugby Championship. It is a tremendous credit to the standard of rugby displayed by our teams and players and the superb work done by our broadcasters to showcase that talent.

“The URC offers a diversity in playing styles and cultures across two hemispheres that is unique in club rugby and we can see that fans in the north and south have been attracted to that.

“With a mix of free-to-air and pay-TV coverage allied to our increased presence in South Africa and record figures in Italy we have found a very effective formula to grow interest in our league and the sport of rugby union.”

It was announced back last year the Pro14 was being rebranded as the URC, with four top South African teams – the Sharks, Stormers, Lions, and Bulls – joining 12 established sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales in a 16-team competition.

The URC will comprise one division, as opposed to two conferences in the old competition, with each team to play 18 regular season fixtures, leading to playoffs, and a grand final next June.

FTA coverage has been flagged as a key component of the URC’s broadcast strategy, with Italy’s Mediaset making its debut as a broadcast partner for the 2021-22 season and Ireland’s RTÉ and BBC Wales returning as FTA partners for the league. They joined existing FTA broadcast partners TG4 (Ireland), S4C (Wales), and BBC Northern Ireland.

The new season also saw the launch of URC TV, the league’s streaming service that is available to fans watching in Ireland, Europe (except the UK), the US, and several other territories.

In the UK, the URC has a four-year rights deal with Premier Sports, the pay-television broadcaster, which it announced last year.