Saturday 4 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
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Opinion: Peace in European rugby hits fans in the pocket
European rugby will live on next season, but you’ll have to pay extra to keep watching it.

AT LONG LAST, there is peace in European rugby as all parties have slowly but surely agreed to load their toys back into their respective prams and play on.

Yet while BT Sport director Simon Green says that is “fantastic news for rugby fans” and that the game is coming first; with every word he is proving how wide the disconnect is.

We’re all looking forward to the continuation of European rugby and intrigued as to how the new format will impact the competition. However, for most supporters, the stand-out line from today’s announcement is not the eight-year accord or the confirmation of inter-league qualification playoffs, but the agreement between Sky Sports and BT to share the rights to the fixtures.

The two broadcasters will carve up the competition games between them with BT asserting their growing dominance in the market by winning first dibs on matches featuring English clubs. Sky meanwhile will more than likely continue to host the majority of Irish provincial matches as they have first choice of matches involving French and Pro12 sides.

With the agreement dividing matches evenly between Sky and BT – including two quarter-finals apiece, one semi-final and shared coverage of the final – it means that supporters will have to pay extra for a tweaked product.

Fans currently watching the Heineken Cup on Sky are paying in the region of €37 per month. Add BT Sport (with Setanta Sports) at a cost of €16, and suddenly rugby fans will need to find €54 per month to watch the biggest games on the fixture list.

It must be said that both providers will have more than just the new three tiers of European competitions on board. Sky will take the Pro12 under their rather large wing next season and your BT/Setanta package will bring you live action from the Premiership and Top 14. They’ve got their bases covered.

‘Maturity, flexibility’

Those able satisfy their rugby-watching needs with just their own province’s European ties could all just go to the pub, of course. A round of five drinks during a single game on two consecutive weekends would still see you coming away much better off than a dual sports subscriber. But (even before we get into the arguments that arise in pubs with a limited number of screens and a plethora of sports to choose from)  that’s not often practical or recommended by your GP.

“The game of rugby had to come first and both companies have recognised that by showing a high degree of maturity and flexibility,” continues the joint statement.

Presumably the same maturity and flexibility led to this ordeal being dragged out for the best part of the past two years and left clubs and their supporters with the threat of their favourite rug being pulled out from underneath.

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The contracts are still to be signed by BT and Sky, but the deal is agreed in principle. So with an eight-year Accord agreed between the stakeholders the hope is that lower cost alternative to live digital TV can be provided. One such idea, put forward by Andy McGeady this evening, would be if each broadcaster were to offer streaming only packages.

With broadband speeds reaching acceptable levels all over the county, a reduced price ‘season ticket’ to watch European rugby from the comfort of your own home sounds like real value for fans who simply can not stretch to spend €54 every month.

However, the disconnect between the good-for-the-game merchants and their customers may make it some time before that message can come through clearly.

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