RWC 2007 on Canadian TV ~ at a steep cost.
Last week William Houston's "Truth & Rumours" column in the Globe and Mail newspaper reported that Setanta will be launching a new specialty soccer channel in Canada. Buried in the report was the following brief about 2007 Rugby World Cup coverage:
Rugby on TV
Still with Setanta Sports Canada, it also will distribute World Cup of Rugby coverage. [Shane O'Rourke, the president of North American operations for Setanta] said about half of the live telecasts from the tournament in September and October in France will air on SSC. The remaining games, including the premium matchups, will be carried on pay-per-view or designated for commercial establishments. Setanta will air those games on a tape-delayed basis.
This is alarming and worrisome news for several reasons.
Every game of every previous RWC tournament since the tournament commenced in 1987, has been available for free to all regular cable TV subscribers in Canada (TSN and Sportsnet, respectively), which means the majority of Canadian television sets. From memory, most of those RWC matches were all broadcast live, and many, if not most, matches were repeated on tape-delay basis.
That initial Rugby World Cup kicked off an invigorating interest in rugby in Canada. Sports channels stepped up to the plate and began providing match coverage of rugby games in the interim years between RWC's. First broadcast on TSN, then later on Sportsnet (both regular cable), and then in 2001 specialty digital cable channel Fox Sports World Canada (FSWC) began regular rugby programming of club, provincial and international test matches from both hemispheres. That all stopped two years ago, coinciding with Fox Sports World (USA)'s rebranding as "The Soccer Channel." I have written extensively over the past 18 months about the failure of FSWC to fulfill their promise of performance as required on their licence application to the CRTC. (See posts passim in the archive).
We have seen the profile of rugby significantly raised at the Canadian high-school, varsity and club level, for both men and women, over the past twenty years. But the sad reality is that for the past two years, rugby coverage for the Canadian fan has never been worse. It's true that Mediazone Rugby Channel provides coverage, but it is on a Pay-Per-View basis, on a small computer screen, and it is for acolytes such as myself, and does nothing to draw new eyeballs to the sport and develop it. Former Canadian skipper Al Charron wrote about the problem last August ("Show Me the Rugby"), and is just as frustrated as I am. Canadians could not see their national team qualify for the RWC with their ass-kicking of the United States in Newfoundland last year. Nor could we see Canada play Wales in front of 73,000 spectators in Cardiff.
Most fans here, while annoyed, expected they'd at least get to see the RWC. My worries began several months ago, when I began writing Rugby Canada, TSN, and Rogers Sportsnet seeking any-and-all information about potential RWC television rights in Canada, and received not a single reply from any of them.
As Houston reports above, there is a silver lining to the bad news. Setanta Sports, an Irish network with a North American division, is stepping up and filling the void. Nevertheless, the RWC package comes at a steep cost.
I followed up Houston's column by contacting Robert Ryan, the Director of Setanta's North American operations. Unlike regular Canadian networks (~ specifically TSN, Sportsnet, Telelatino, Fox Sports World Canada and their parent Can-West Global) who never answer their mail, Setanta has always been forthcoming in prompt replies to enquiries.
Ryan provided me some information about the new SSC launch and RWC plans. Additional information was also provided by Shane O'Rourke, the aforementioned president of North America operations.
First of all, I wanted to know whether Setanta Sports Canada had anything to do with Telelatino's licence approval for RCS (Rugby-Cricket-Soccer), the specialty digital cable channel that was approved by the CRTC 15 months ago. (There were rumours floating on various websites last April that Setanta would be the content provider for RCS. Telelatino has not replied to more than five enquiries from me with anything more than a single vague form letter last year, and there's been no movement on the stations' development or launch date since. Last year I asked Mr. Ryan about the rumours, and all he could tell me was that there were on-going negotiations, but given the confidential nature of the negotiations he was understandably wary about divulging specific details.) Here's our latest correspondence:
RT: Is Setanta Sports Canada (SSC) a new name for RCS? Is there a Telelatino connection?
Robert Ryan (Director): Setanta Sports Channel.
Shane O'Rourke (President): Not at this time it will more than likely be called Setanta Sports Canada. The partner agreement is between several players and no deal has been signed.
RT: Just for the record, you guys have nothing to do with Telelatino then, correct?
Robert Ryan: Just in talks with them.
Shane O'Rourke: None!
RT: Regarding the Rugby World Cup, what will be the costs of the games? Will these be priced individually, and/or will package deals be available for the entire tournament? Will the RWC games all be available live for home viewers?
Robert Ryan: Looks like the Channel will be up and running by late summer - not sure which platform and what model - ie. Sports Tier OR Subscription will be used yet. Some games as suggested - mainly the bigger games will be on LIVE in the bars / clubs as well with a $20 cover. The others will air LIVE on the Channel and all games will be delayed on the full-time channel within 24hrs.
Shane O'Rourke: 23-24 games on ppv and we will try to package them. $20 per day in the bars. Price per game $24.95 and $29.95 for the final but the package should be around $199 but that is not confirmed as yet with the carriers.
Robert Ryan: If we do PPV in homes there will be a pkg available and games will also be sold individually on PPV - Likely $24.95.
So, there you have it. We will have RWC games made available ~ but at a cost. That's a silver-lining for fans, but again, it does nothing to grow the sport or recruit new participants in Canada. In fact, I fear rugby in Canada will be feeling the sting of this action for many years to come.
It does no good maligning Setanta for this. They are providing a service. (Curiously, we have seen zero action from RCS, given licence approval 15 months ago; but strangely, if you do a CRTC search on licence approvals under the name "Setanta," you won't find anything. What is up with that?)
Who then, is to blame for RWC being marginalized, at a steep cost, to Canadian viewers? Is it the IRB, who have greedily priced their broadcasting rights beyond the rates that Canadian sports channels are willing to pay? Or is it Rugby Canada's fault for not doing enough to ensure partnerships with these broadcasters, and demand a better deal from the IRB on behalf of the Canadian channels and sponsors?
I don't know who to blame. But I'm pretty damn sure Rugby Canada's new sponsor Guinness breweries can't be too delighted about it. And the Canadian players themselves, who have sacrificed a lot simply to make their national team and qualify for the World Cup, must surely be crestfallen that their friends and neighbours ~ to say nothing of the larger Canadian viewing public ~ will be obliged to pay handsomely to watch any of their matches.
Last point, and this is a biggie:
Does Rugby Canada now deserve to have an IRB RWCL vote?
There are 23 votes on the IRB council to decide the hosting rights for the Rugby World Cup. Established rugby nations England, Wales, France, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa get two votes each. That's 16 votes right there. The seven remaining votes are divided between Argentina, Italy, Asia, Europe, Africa, Oceania ~ and Canada ~ with one vote apiece.
Argentina and Italy are good value at a vote apiece. Argentina are probably worthy of a 2nd vote right now. And Italy, being the only entry in the Six Nations championship without a double-vote, probably feels they now have reason to suspect they deserve another vote as well. (Alas, Europe as a whole gets a vote.) Oceania, where rugby is the national sport in Samoa, Fiji and Tonga, only receive one single vote ~ collectively! The United States does not have a vote.
Looking from the outside, it seems preposterous that Canada, a union in a nation that is now ghetto-izing the Rugby World Cup to a high-end margin where very few eyeballs will even see the Big Kahuna, deserves the same leverage in deciding RWC hosting rights, as does Argentina and the Pacific Island nations. It gets patently ridiculous when we realize Canada has a power to tilt the hosting rights one way or the other. It's like giving Fiji a vote to determine where the World Cup of Ice Hockey should be hosted.
All things being fair, don't be surprised to see the IRB pull Canada's vote and give it to Argentina. The fact is, until Rugby Canada and the IRB can work to raise the profile of the sport in this country, we don't deserve the privilege. Let's be honest, the 2007 RWC broadcasting deal clearly demonstrates that the promotion - and more dangerously, the development - of rugby in Canada is stifled and regressing. We're going backwards to 1979.
And as far as rumours floating that Rugby Canada will propose hosting bids for the 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups ~ seriously, you must be joking! If Canada can't even get the RWC on regular TV, then how in the hell are they ever going to get Canadians to spend $100 for tickets on a sport and tournament they know nothing about? Pass the smelling salts to the IRB and Rugby Canada ~ they need to wake up and get a clue, quickly.
(Hat-tip to Jason Cormier at the Rugby Canada website forum for alerting me to the Wm. Houston column.)