Pulver's Super Rugby TV deal promise premature

Broadcasters and TV rights analysts question whether Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver can deliver the pot of gold needed to save the professional game from oblivion.

They claim Pulver has negotiated in reverse, agreeing with SANZAR on an expanded 18-team competition from 2016, ahead of confirming with Australian broadcasters what they will pay for it.

Pulver has said the ARU can gain a significant uplift in TV rights for Super Rugby and Wallaby matches, equivalent to the payment Football Federation Australia receives for the A-League and Socceroos matches.

Analysts and broadcasters alike say this is overly ambitious, comparing it with the "stairway to heaven" valuation of $68 million a year V8 Supercars put on itself at a time when Channel Seven was paying $27 million. Seven subsequently renegotiated for $18 million and six months ago Channel Ten and Fox Sports combined for a deal of $35 million.

FFA currently receives $25 million from Fox Sports and $7 million from SBS, not the $40 million on which Pulver bases his claim that the ARU should receive more than the current payment of $25 million.

In the TV industry, content is king and in sport this translates to prime-time games, not 3am games beamed from South Africa.

Under the newly agreed SANZAR competition structure involving South Africa and New Zealand, the number of fixtures per Australian team is 15, compared with the A-League's 27, while the total number of home fixtures featuring Australian rugby teams is 37, compared with football's 122.

This produces the most significant statistic for a broadcaster: the total number of live home fixture hours is 74 for rugby union and 244 for football.

Both rugby union and football are shown mainly on pay TV, but Fox Sports is also willing to pay more for the A-League because it needs a summer growth profile, particularly with the Big Bash migrating to Ten.

It's no surprise, therefore, that 10 years after the Rugby World Cup in Australia, when the code vied with rugby league for second place in the pecking order behind Australian football, rugby union is now last behind football.

The new SANZAR competition structure reduces the number of local derbies between Australia's five Super Rugby teams, meaning every second year they will lose a home game.

A GMS report provided to the ARU and the New Zealand Rugby Union in 2013 clearly indicated that fans watching on TV in Australia and New Zealand preferred local derbies, followed by games involving trans-Tasman teams. Their least favourite teams were from South Africa, whether the game was played here or in South Africa. The data supplied contradicts Pulver's public comments that local derbies are important only with the Reds and the Waratahs.

A subsequent GMS report in 2014, commissioned by the Rugby Union Players Association, reinforced this and highlighted that the current Super Rugby competition would continue to make losses of approximately $14 million per year.

The new 18-team model is even worse, with a projected annual loss of $19 million.

While Pulver has promised his five Australian teams a rise in annual grants of more than the current annual payment of $4.5 million each, the GMS report claims they need an increase of 165 per cent in rights fees to ensure the Australian Super Rugby teams break even.

While income from SANZAR broadcasters is pooled, the money paid for coverage of domestic competitions – South Africa's Currie Cup and New Zealand's ITM Cup – is not.

It is extremely unlikely that Australia, which will launch its own domestic competition in August, would receive a third share of this.

South Africa will have to fund a new franchise from Port Elizabeth and there is a new partner in the sharing arrangement – Argentina, who join the South African conference.

Analysts claim that the only way the ARU can significantly increase TV revenue is to convince South Africa's broadcaster, SuperSport, to pay more for Australian and New Zealand games shown in South Africa.

Rugby union is the No. 1 sport in South Africa, with 8.8 million people annually watching the 60 regular-season games involving only Australian and New Zealand teams, excluding finals.

But, as one broadcaster said, why would SuperSport pay more for non-South African games in a 2016-2020 competition structure that has already been agreed?

The popularity of rugby union in South Africa is the main reason why Australia and New Zealand agreed to the retention of the tripartite relationship.

Threats that South Africa would move to play in a more time-zone-friendly competition in Europe are baseless.

Europe has recently finalised its club-based European Champions Cup, meaning South Africa has no alternative other than to play (and pay?) with Australia, New Zealand and Argentina over the five years.

Unless South Africa tips more money into the SANZAR pool, Pulver's promised pot of gold is more akin to the song Fool's Gold by Quote Unquote: "Everything we had is like a pot of gold, non-existent at the end of the rainbow; It all seemed so real, it all seemed so perfect, but it was just an illusion."

This story Pulver's Super Rugby TV deal promise premature first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.