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The URC will get underway in September.
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URC to be broadcast with a mix of free-to-air, pay TV, and online streaming
CEO Martin Anayi said the South African teams come ‘with a commercial might.’

THE UNITED RUGBY Championship will be broadcast via a mix of free-to-air and pay-TV broadcasters, while tournament organisers are also teaming up with an Irish broadcaster to offer an online streaming service for games.

United Rugby Championship [URC] CEO Martin Anayi confirmed the new arrangement this afternoon following the official announcement of the rebranded league, which will welcome the four South African clubs – the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks, and Lions – into a new 16-team format.

An increased free-to-air offering will be welcomed by Irish rugby supporters, with more than 90% of the Irish provinces’ URC games set to be available without any subscription fee.

“We’ll announce it shortly and you’ll see maybe a better blend than we had previously,” Anayi told The42.

“We’ll have pay-TV but also a pretty substantial free-to-air option across the UK and Ireland, which is great. We keep our core pay partner there, which is important when you’ve got 151 games a season. No free-to-air broadcaster is going to have the capacity to show all the games and we want fans to see every game they want to watch.

“With our broadcaster in Ireland, we’re also going to launch an international direct consumer service, an OTT [over-the-top] service, which we’re really excited about. We have those three prongs to it.”

The new four-year broadcast deals are expected to be formally announced soon and the URC is excited about the return of free-to-air games.

a-general-view-of-a-tv-camera-covering-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO The URC will feature lots of free-to-air coverage. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“I love watching rugby and I want to watch as much of it as I can,” said Anayi. “Maybe I’m a minority but I want to be able to access it all. Free-to-air isn’t really about me, it’s about the next generation of fans and introducing the game to many more people.

“Six Nations are very good at this, they talk to millions of people. In the club game, we need to bring that exposure and scale, talking to the wider audience who might class themselves as ‘casual’ rugby fans. As you become more and more of a fan, you’re willing to pay for the product and we move you across to the pay service where you can watch all the games.”

Anayi is enthusiastic about the new “streamlined” format of the URC, which will start its 2021/22 season on the weekend of 24/25/26 September and feature 18 regular-season rounds before quarter-finals, semi-finals, and a final in June 2022.

The new South African teams will be allowed to qualify into the Heineken Champions Cup for the following season, with the qualification format guaranteeing that SA Rugby will have at least one team in that competition in 2022/23.

Anayi said the existing Pro14 teams had not struggled to accept this new reality.

“They just saw the quality of the teams coming in and felt they were excited by that, and that it would add to the Champions Cup too.

“That wasn’t a sales point for us, everyone bought into the South African teams coming in and that they needed to be a proper member of our league. If they qualify on merit, they should have the same opportunity as everyone else.”

URC_Team hero_Overview_Landscape

The URC won’t clash with Six Nations or Autumn Test weekends, as was the case with the Pro14, although the opening rounds of next season’s league do take place on the same weekends as two Springboks games against the All Blacks.

Anayi has been in his role as CEO of Pro Rugby Championship DAC for six years now and said today’s announcement is the fruit of the organisation’s long-held “expansionist” ambitions.

Last year saw private equity firm CVC buying a 28% stake in the competition in a deal worth more than €130 million and though Anayi says they were “integral” to the creation of the URC, he points out that the strategy of bringing South Africa onboard predates CVC’s arrival.

“CVC helped us accelerate that change,” said Anayi. “They’ve been nothing but a positive influence on us delivering our strategy.”

Bringing in the Bulls, Lions, Stormers, and Sharks will give the URC far greater financial clout, according to Anayi.

“Having the best four teams in South Africa comes with a commercial might. It comes with the full backing of SuperSport [the TV broadcaster in South Africa] and the full backing of MultiChoice, the broadcaster in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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“It all comes with a ready-made commercial impact, never mind the impact it will have on the clubs with ticket sales and season tickets, which is something our clubs are very conscious of.”

martin-anayi James Crombie / INPHO URC CEO Martin Anayi. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Anayi said the URC has already secured a title sponsor in South Africa, with an announcement to come later this summer, while something similar will likely follow in this neck of the woods.

“It would make sense to have the same up here,” said Anayi. “We kind of like launching it without a sponsor and I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense to any sponsor, they do a great job for us, but it just helps the brand of United Rugby Championship to take root. That’s by design, we want it to really land.”

The initial reaction among supporters and media appears to have been positive today, with Anayi hopeful that this marks a major shift forward for a competition that has undergone a huge amount of change in recent years.

Having been in Bloemfontein with 500 Munster fans only two years ago for a game against the now-discarded Cheetahs, Anayi can see the appeal for travelling fans despite the long-distance journey to South Africa whenever restrictions are lifted.

The new format guarantees two-game trips for the Northern Hemisphere teams and URC is looking at working with a tour company to cash in on this side of things.

After lots of upheaval and re-formatting in recent times, this is it for the URC, according to Anayi and co. SA Rugby is on board and will become a full shareholder in the league in the fifth year of this agreement.

“We’ve come off international weekends and added some really quality teams in, four of the biggest club brands in the world,” said Anayi. “It’s a dream come true for them to come into our league.”

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