A Premier opportunity for regional rugby

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As of this summer, Scrum V as we currently know it will be no more. ‘Rejoice!’ you might say, for the old boys club on a Sunday night has finally shut its doors. ‘Disaster!’ others say, for free to air television coverage is all but lost for the Guinness Pro14.

Little known subscription channel Premier Sports will be the main broadcaster next season in the UK, while Eir Sports take over in Ireland, as the BBC and Sky Sports drop out of the Pro14’s broadcaster ranks altogether.

Since the announcements regarding next season’s TV deals debate has raged over whether it is a good thing for the leagues and specifically the Welsh sides, or if it is the death knell for the Pro14 and regions as they are hidden away and slowly die on an obscure television channel.

Cheetahs Pro14
The Pro14 will now be shown almost exclusively behind a pay wall

There are definite benefits to what Premier Sports are bringing to the table for 2018/19 and beyond. Every single Guinness Pro14 match will be shown live across the weekend, bringing an end to finding dodgy online streams of Treviso and Connacht away. They will also have highlight and magazine shows throughout the week, as the league is made the channel’s flagship output. Who knows, they might even lift the ban on the use of the ‘C’ word!

Hopefully this means that the quality of the coverage is greatly improved from the five minutes of pre-match build up we currently have on the BBC, with full analysis and a range of pundits available to offer their thoughts, rather than the Chum V setup we have now.

Of course, there is also the monetary benefit to Premier Sports coming on board as, along with Eir Sports, Eurosport in Italy and SuperSport in South Africa, the television money pot for the Pro14 now sits at around £30m.

That works out at just over £2m per team, whereas at the start of the 2016/17 season the TV money stood around £12m, just £1m per team. A very welcome and noticeable rise in this time of financial constraints.

cap-v-newport
An extra £1m per season could be coming in to the Arms Park

Add in the fact that Premier Sports will show one game on their free-to-air sister channel Free Sports every week, and that a deal is believed to be close for S4C to also show one game per week, and there are obvious upsides to the new deal.

However, concerns have been raised regarding the visibility of a league that is only shown on a little-known television channel that costs an extra £10 a month for viewers on top of the already expensive packages, in terms of both supporter reach and sponsorship potential.

Particularly in Wales, where attendances are not quite reaching the levels the regions are hoping for, there is a valid concern that the Pro14 will be ‘out of sight and out of mind’ for those young people that will form the next generation of supporter.

Although 15 years of free-to-air television has not resulted in any serious upturn in attendances, and those happy to just watch at home are no actual loss to the professional game, those in school now are crucial to the ongoing viability of the regions.

CAP full
Cardiff Arms Park hasn’t seen much crowd increase after 15 years on free to air TV

With Premier Sports confirmed as the broadcaster for the next few years though, going back to the almost fully free-to-air setup we had before is not an option, so we have to make the best of the deal that has been signed. This can be done in two ways.

Firstly, Premier Sports, the Pro14 and all the teams have a responsibility to engage with supporters in order to drastically improve the fan experience the Pro14 has to offer. This will benefit both existing supporters and prospective supporters.

Regular kick-off times, a suitable amount of which are family friendly, and fixtures confirmed a suitable amount of time in advance are key to this, and this is where the powers that be must consult with supporters.

Fans of different teams tend to have different preferences when it comes to kick-off times, with Ulster, as an example, sticking almost entirely to Friday night games, while the results of recent fan surveys in Wales showed Saturday afternoon to be most popular time.

If kick-off times are more regular it makes it easier for the existing supporter to attend, as well as the prospective supporter not put off by games being played potentially any time between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Ulster Sam Warburton 2
Ulster’s home games are almost exclusively on Friday nights

Secondly, there is then a solely Cardiff Blues responsibility to ensure that the young generation are not lost in the pay-per-view age.

Now, before starting with this section it is imperative to say that the work down by the Cardiff Blues community department is second to none, staging rugby camps and get into rugby sessions up and down the region and visiting plenty of schools along the way. There is something the commercial department can assist them with though.

If you speak to supporters of a certain age, many will tell you that if they did not attend their first Cardiff games with family, then free tickets issued through their schools were the route along which their first trips to the Arms Park came.

However, I myself am at an age whereby I was still in primary school during the 2003 shake-up of Welsh professional rugby, meaning regional rugby was the norm for much of my school life.

Attending inner city Cardiff schools, I do not remember being offered Cardiff Blues tickets at any point over the next 10 or so years. Coming from a football background, I only fell into rugby through friends and due to a teacher who played for Cardiff RFC and occasionally Cardiff Blues.

Therefore, Cardiff Blues have a fine opportunity, on the back of the TV deal, to return to offering free tickets to schools and clubs throughout the City and region, ensuring that this next generation are getting down to the Arms Park at the family friendly kick-off times regularly.

CAP
Getting kids and families down to the Arms Park regularly has to be the ultimate goal

Then, when they hopefully enjoy the day and see some entertaining rugby, they will go home and ask their parents to bring them back to the Arms Park, and a new Cardiff Blues supporter can be added to the list.

Is the new TV deal perfect? No, it isn’t. But can Premier Sports, the Pro14 and Cardiff Blues make it into a success for the league, the clubs and the supporters? Absolutely they can.

As ever, supporter engagement is at the centre of any progression, and the Cardiff Blues have a real chance to be at the fore front of that. Let us be pro-active at this crucial time for regional rugby.

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