Page XIII: In The Ghetto

Rugby League World Editorial: First published in Issue 436 (Aug 2017)

Hands up if you think Radio 2 disc jockey Chris Evans is worth a salary of two and a half million quid a year. Ok Chris, you can put your hand down now. Despite being from Warrington and an occasional visitor to the Halliwell Jones Stadium to cheer on the Wolves, most notably at this year’s World Club Series game against Brisbane, there probably won’t be too many Rugby League fans who can understand why so much of their licence fee money finds its way into his pay packet every year for doing a bit of chit-chat and playing music over the morning cornflakes (although I’m sure like anyone who is good at their job, he makes that look easier than it really is).

We only know how much he and others get paid following the release of this information by the BBC under pressure from the government, and whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of that, it has kicked off a right old rumpus about the value, or otherwise, of the licence fee.

We all have to pay it, the £147 annual charge for owning a telly which goes to fund the Beeb whether you watch it or not. That irks some people, but to me it represents something of a bargain, considering the smorgasbord of entertainment I get in return. I don’t listen to Chris Evans if I can help it, but some of that licence fee ends up coming to Rugby League by way of the contract to screen the Challenge Cup. Not enough, of course, nothing is ever enough, but the Beeb does afford the sport a platform and a reach that far exceeds any other broadcaster in the UK and that cannot be sniffed at. You know, for example, that if a Rugby League match is on the BBC, it can be viewed by anyone who owns a TV, just by turning it on to the correct station – or catching up later on iPlayer.

In contrast, if you want to watch Rugby League on Sky Sports, although you’ll get more games, it will cost you significantly more per year for a subscription and you’ll require the installation of a specific gizmo, either a dish or a cable and a set top box too.

While Sky’s reach continues to grow, and good luck to them, it still only delivers a fraction of the audiences that a terrestrial ‘free-to-air’ broadcaster like the BBC can.

Sky have also recently changed the way they supply their sporting wares, banding several of the ‘bigger’ sports onto their own specific channels, which has the potential to leave others out in the cold, bundled together on a couple of 57-varieties channels. It is now possible to pick and mix what you want to subscribe to, which on the face of it is great for the viewer. If you only want football, you buy the football channels. If you only want golf, Formula 1 or cricket, you can do likewise. But as you might guess, Rugby League does not get its own flagship channel, it is one of the ‘lesser’ sports lumped together with rugby union, darts and suchlike.

The cheapest Sky Sports package now starts at £18 per month. That’s £216 per year, way more than the licence fee, but you’re only getting one or two channels for it.

The additional problem for Rugby League as a result of this ghettoisation, is that it stands to lose a significant chunk of its casual viewers in the process. People who have perhaps up to now, subscribed to Sky Sports to watch mainly football but who have had access to other sports along with it as part of their overall package, can now reduce their package to purely football and save a few quid along the way. No more Super League for them. And the smaller the audience, the less Sky are likely to pay for the rights next time. The reverse is also possible, that more Rugby League fans will subscribe now they don’t have to pay for football. Time will tell.

It’s a symptom of the modern age that the more technology advances, the easier it becomes to immerse yourself in things that are of specific interest to you, at the exclusion of everything else. Themed channels, on demand services and so on. That’s fine for football and other sports that already have a significant profile but it hinders sports like Rugby League still struggling to increase its footprint. How do you reach new fans if everyone is already fully absorbed with their own existing interests and not in the market for anything else?