TV Times: The changing face of Rugby League broadcasting

MATTHEW SHAW (pictured), a regular broadcaster on both television and radio, working for Premier Sports and BBC Radio Leeds, looks at Rugby League’s current coverage, and what the future may hold

TECHNOLOGY is continually evolving and while becoming more accessible, can also be hard to grasp.
The media industry is in the middle of that challenging mix, with new developments coming at an eye-watering pace.
Rugby League is desperately craving more coverage at a time when competition for column inches and time slots is hotter than ever.
The lazy assumption, the typical opinion, is that the sport gets nowhere near as much coverage as in years gone by.
But this could not be any further from the truth.
Sky Sports remains the game’s biggest broadcasting partner in this country and is screening more games than ever before, having acquired NRL rights once again.
But unlike times gone by, that £200 million contract no longer gives the satellite broadcaster a stranglehold on coverage.
Times are changing. New modes of broadcasting are emerging, clubs are seeking their own TV deals and more companies, and individuals, are in a position to showcase the game.
Along with Sky’s increased content, the worldwide web has provided a platform for professional writers, casual bloggers or dedicated fans to connect with a global audience.
The increasing popularity of podcasts means the sport boasts at least ten channels attracting views in their thousands.
The radio scene remains prominent, in fact, it is thriving.
Alongside the broadcasts which have become a staple of Rugby League coverage, online radio stations have been created to allow a new alternative to the BBC’s national and local coverage.
And on TV, the breakthrough of Toronto Wolfpack has brought League 1 and, more recently the Championship, worldwide audiences.
The Wolfpack decided to opt out of a slice of the Sky cake and fix their own broadcasting deals.
Now all their matches are shown in the UK, North America and Australia.
The Asian TV market will also get in on the fun in the near future if Toronto have their way.
Rugby League has more coverage than ever before – but there’s one problem.
While the volume has risen, its reach most certainly has not.
Because for all the additional content on a variety of platforms, it’s all targeted at the same, existing audience.
In essence, we’re all preaching to the converted.
The rise of online content is consumed by the same people, the hours of Rugby League debate uploaded every week isn’t being accessed by those with less knowledge of, but some interest in, the game.
And the vast majority of television coverage is on a pay-to-subscribe basis.
While Sky’s coverage may be picked up on by the occasional channel hopper, the harsh reality is that only a small proportion of subscribers to their sports package have any interest in their Rugby League programming.
Those watching Premier Sports’ coverage of Toronto are those specifically paying to watch the Wolfpack.
The amount of coverage might be greater than ever before, but the number of people consuming it is dwindling.
Why? Because the game’s presence on the major television platforms is on the slide.
While Sky are showing more matches, their overall coverage of Super League is deteriorating.
It’s been well noted by viewers that Sky’s pre and post-match offering has changed.
In 2017, coverage of Friday matches began at 7.00, with a broadcast often going on until 10.30.
Now, the coverage has been cut, with all shows this season starting at 7.30.
While Sky have never confirmed why, it’s understood to be due to the earlier kick-offs, pushed forward to 7.45 at the request of journalists keen to ease deadline pressures and get longer articles in their newspapers.
But it means that instead of an hour, pre-match coverage has been slashed to 15 minutes.
That’s less exposure for players, clubs and the game as a whole.
Equally, there has been dismay at some of the post-match coverage offered by Sky, with some of their programming this year being nothing but the match itself, along with a few minutes before the game and some flash pitchside interviews afterwards.
It is undoubtedly bad news for the sport’s diehard following, and an even deeper concern is the level of coverage the game gets on terrestrial TV.
When it comes to opening up the sport to a wider market, the BBC is the undisputed king. Viewing figures prove that to be the case.
However, the amount of live action set to be shown on the Beeb’s major channels is down too.
From the sixth round of the Challenge Cup onwards, two games will be screened each weekend, culminating in the final at Wembley.
But beyond that, the only further action will be England’s Test series with New Zealand.
While the importance of having the international game available to the nation shouldn’t be ignored, the lack of regular content is a real worry.
Yes, the BBC shows highlights from every Super League game every week on a regular show, but given the allocated time slots – often late at night – the majority of viewers are those going out of their way to watch, in other words, existing fans.
The theories over the cause of the broadcasting problems are endless, but there are some facts to go with them.
The rise in popularity of other sports along with the increasing interest in niche sports has left Rugby League battling with more sports for similar amounts of airtime, and the audience figures – particularly from a Sky perspective – don’t help the cause.
So how does the sport go about arresting the decline? It must simply look outside the box.
When a player grows tired of a lack of game time, they’ll often join a new club.
The sport must now do something similar from a TV perspective, change tack and find an alternative means of exposure.
We’ve already seen the beginnings of this, as last year, the RFL controversially decided to live stream England’s mid-season Test against Samoa to a paying audience.
While that may not have had the success desired, Bradford Bulls have jumped on the bandwagon and sorted their own broadcasting deal.
The League 1 club has partnered up with Proper Sport to provide a live stream of all their games this season, broadcast on Facebook.
The early results have been enormously encouraging. A staggering 130,000 unique viewers have watched all or part of the broadcast.
To put it into context, that’s similar to Sky’s audience.
Of course, Facebook is a free platform for anyone to use, meaning the Bulls’ coverage isn’t locked behind a pay wall, and that’s the vital part.
It is becoming easier to access sport for free, whether that be legally or not.
Ultimately, Rugby League’s best chance, perhaps its only chance, is to increase its market by finding more ways to show off the product to a larger audience that can easily access the content.
The French competition has found a gap in the market by broadcasting live streams on YouTube, others have even dabbled with the idea of streaming live on Periscope, although it hasn’t had the success so far enjoyed by Bradford through Facebook.
This isn’t an uncomment strategy within niche sports.
Popular website and social media channel ‘SportBible’ has live streamed international table tennis, while the sport’s national championships were streamed on the BBC Sport website.
Although the short-term financial gain might not be huge, the long-term potential is.
Streaming, along with everything else, must be seen as an investment, with the end goal being a new audience which can help a sport prosper in years to come.
In a world where Rugby League is scrapping for everything, the evolution of the media industry provides opportunities to do something about deteriorating coverage.
It’s up to the sport to act.

This feature was first published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 444 (April 2018) pictured. If you enjoyed it, why not consider taking out a subscription to read many more great features every month covering the whole world of Rugby League, from the grassroots to the international game and all points  in between? 

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