Peter Smith: Taking TV coverage ‘in-house’ will not benefit game in the long run

Ryan Hall.
Ryan Hall.
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RUGBY LEAGUE’S relationship with the media is changing.

For the best part of 121 years the sport has been desperate for any coverage it can get.

Now, moving with the times, it seems to think it can do the job itself.

Both the governing body and individual clubs are increasingly setting themselves up as the place to go for information on the game.

This, of course, is common to probably every sport now in the digital age. But rugby league is different from the big, mainstream sports such as football, cricket and rugby union in that the casual market is not there.

Other than the die-hard fans, there aren’t millions of potential supporters out there who will go looking for news or coverage of rugby league.

The Rugby Football League will discover this when they live-stream – that is broadcast on their website – England’s mid-season Test against Samoa in Sydney next month.

Rather than an audience of millions on the BBC, the game will be watched by thousands and it’s a fair bet every single one of those will already be a supporter of the code.

The BBC wanted to cover the game live, but the supposedly small fee they offered was deemed unacceptable by the governing body.

The RFL felt the rights were worth more. However, if the BBC was the only bidder, its offer was the market value.

Like anything else, television rights are only worth what somebody is willing to pay.

Having turned down the BBC’s bid, the RFL will now charge £3.49 for viewers to subscribe. Or it’s free with a Magic Weekend ticket, which highlights exactly what sort of audience it is being aimed at.

Can rugby league really afford to turn down the sort of free-to-air coverage the BBC was offering?

Of course not, especially in a World Cup year.

There’s a place for internet streaming of matches. The BBC’s website broadcasts of Challenge Cup ties this season have proved very popular. But that was free of charge, not as a paid alternative to something previously provided at no cost.

Wigan live-streamed their under-19s derby against St Helens on Sunday, which again was a success, they say and the RFL certainly can’t ignore a changing world.

But England’s only competitive game before the World Cup is not the right time to experiment.

They could have dipped a toe into the Kingstone Press Championship – which receives no live TV coverage – first to test the water.

Instead, fans – who already pay for Sky and Premier Sports – are being asked to fork out again.

The RFL was rightly criticised for giving away sponsorship of Super League a few years ago, but in this case the exposure the BBC was offering should have been a bigger factor than the fee.

The RFL say the Test was under-valued by the broadcasters, but it is the governing body who are doing that.

England’s players deserve to be seen on the widest-possible stage, which in this case is free-to-air television.

This attitude is in contrast with the way the sport bends over backwards to accommodate Sky and the BBC on a daily basis – for example Thursday-night Super League, player cam, cameras in the changing rooms, interviews during warm-up and at half-time.

Watching the BBC’s Challenge Cup coverage it seems that whatever the producer wants he or she gets.

In general rugby league provides access broadcasters of other sports could only dream of, because it usually recognises its place in the market.

At a club level the internet is also becoming king.

Top-flight clubs do stage pre- and post-match press conferences, but often these are online almost immediately, thus newspapers are scooped on stories their own questions produce.

Sometimes press conferences are live-streamed, totally negating any need for a reporter to attend. Why spend a couple of hours on the road for something you can watch from the office or home?

Clubs and the governing body are reducing the exposure they and the sport gets. Of course they need to go digital and the internet can be a hugely useful marketing tool, but it has to be used hand-in-hand with the traditional media.