Page XIII: Hide & Seek

Rugby League World Editorial: First published in Issue 433 (May 2017)

The world moves so fast these days it is often hard to find time to catch your breath let alone form a considered opinion on something before subsequent events leave you scratching your head wondering if you were right or wrong.

Last month I was singing the praises of the impact of live-streaming technology on Rugby League, following the successful and popular broadcasts on BBC iPlayer of games from the early rounds of the Challenge Cup.

I did not envisage that this month I would be lamenting the potential damage the exact same technology can have on our sport. Not so much the technology itself, which is here to stay whether we like it or not, but the way the RFL are planning to use it to turn England’s mid-season Test against Samoa into a pay-per-view event on their own website.

The match will be streamed live on for a charge of £3.49 instead of being broadcast free-to-air on BBC2, due to a disagreement between the RFL and the BBC as to the value of the rights.

Now ok, in the scheme of things, £3.49 isn’t a lot of money. This magazine would cost you more, so who are we to get sniffy about it you might reasonably ask. But we know that if we gave Rugby League World away for nothing, chances are a much higher number of people would read it. Don’t get excited just yet, we can’t afford to give RLW away for free! And nor would we expect the RFL to give away the TV rights for an England international for free either.

However, when it comes to the national team, there is an additional calculation to be made: what is the value of exposure on free-to-air national television worth to Rugby League? Can you put a price on it?

Someone must have done, to make the calculation that allowing the BBC to screen the Samoa game is of lesser worth than the potential amount of money that can be raised through making the event pay-per-view.

Whoever took than decision is brave indeed in my view, and I think they have made the wrong call.

I just don’t think pay-per-view is the right platform for England at all, regardless of the amount of money it might raise. It’s the national team. Everyone should be able to see them in action: make it as easy as possible for them to do so, simple as that.

Even if £3.49 is not an outrageous sum of money on its own, there will be potentially interested viewers who don’t have the necessary kit to access the game via a website, and others that do but who just won’t know how to go about it. You need a computer or smart TV, a broadband internet connection and a credit or debit card, as well as the £3.49. As it isn’t on TV, the match won’t appear in any listing magazines either, which between them must sell millions of copies, missing out on catching the eye of a huge casual audience of armchair sports fans.

Why put so many obstacles in the way of your audience, when in the UK, we all already pay for a TV licence and BBC programmes are viewable on even the cheapest telly you could find just by plugging it in and switching it on?

In Rugby League, we are renowned for constantly complaining about the low profile our sport commands in the media. The best antidote to this is having the national team in action more often. We’re halfway there by introducing the mid-season Test in the first place; a round of applause for that. But now we’re hiding it away where only the most committed of Rugby League anoraks will either know it is on at all or have a clue how to go about watching it; a chorus of boos for that.

The game against Samoa will be the first time England have played at all since last year’s Four Nations flop, and the last time they will play before hoping to make amends by winning the World Cup in Australia later this year.

It just seems utterly crackers to hide it away like this in an attempt to teach the Beeb some kind of lesson about the value of international Rugby League. If we don’t care how many people see the game, and clearly we don’t, why should anyone at the BBC?

In a year when we have enjoyed unprecedented coverage of the Challenge Cup via BBC iPlayer, available to all TV licence payers at no extra charge on TVs, computers, smartphones and all manner of other devices, it’s completely the wrong moment to start bashing them over the head trying to prove a point, and the England team is entirely the wrong stick to start bashing them with.