LONDON (AFP) –
The English Premiership has signed its exclusive broadcast rights from next season to BT in a deal worth up to £152 million ($245 million), officials announced Wednesday in a move that could have ramifications for European rugby as well.
The four-year contract will see satellite channels BSkyB and ESPN, who currently split coverage of matches, replaced by BT Vision as the only platform on which to watch top-flight English club rugby from the 2013/14 season onwards — when the telecoms company will also start broadcasting live English Premier League football matches for the first time.
“This is a game-changing agreement and will deliver a service that I know our club supporters will enjoy,” said Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Premiership Rugby, the umbrella body for England’s 12 top flight clubs.
“We are delighted to have concluded our discussions with such an ambitious partner that will help bring the Premiership to new audiences.”
Meanwhile BT will also have exclusive live broadcast rights to games played by Premiership teams in European competitions from 2014 for three years.
This could lead to the fragmentation of European coverage if BSkyB continue to hold overall rights to any competition, such as the European Cup.
The qualification process for the European Cup is set to be discussed at a meeting in Dublin on Tuesday.
English and French teams are currently in dispute with organisers European Rugby Cup (ERC) over the structure of the continent’s premier club rugby union tournament and are threatening a break-away competition when the existing agreement runs out in 2014.
French clubs have put forward a proposal for a European Cup reduced from the current 24 teams to 20 based on six from England, six from France and six from the Celtic League, as well as the reigning champions and the winners of the second tier European Challenge Cup.
It is the proposal to have six sides from the Celtic League that is controversial as it could lead to a European Cup without guaranteed representation from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy, as happens at present.
Currently clubs from all those countries are assured of European Cup spots, albeit in the case of Ireland and Wales these depend upon finishing positions in a Celtic League that also includes teams from Scotland and Italy.
But as three out of the four Irish provinces get European Cup places at the moment, with three out of four Welsh clubs also qualifying, sides in France’s Top 14 and the Premiership believe the existing set-up is unfair.
They also argue that as, unlike their own leagues, there is no relegation from the Celtic League, clubs can rest players from domestic duty ahead of European Cup ties without much fear of the consequences.
And they are particularly envious of the situation in Ireland, where Munster, Leinster and Ulster are all but guaranteed qualification as they are so much stronger than Connacht.
Between them Munster and Leinster have won four out of the last five European Cups, with Leinster beating Ulster in last season’s final as they lifted the trophy for the third time.