We’re just a month away from a feast of rugby league to kick-off the season, after the RFL confirmed the live streaming details for the Challenge Cup and Championship.
The governing body has worked hard to manoeuvre the fixture list to a point where virtually every game across the first few weeks can be watched by all fans – whether that be Super League live on Sky Sports, Challenge Cup live on BBC Sport or Championship and Cup action via the Our League app.
Between Friday, March 19 and Sunday, April 4, there will be 27 live games that you can watch – plus another eight yet to be scheduled Challenge Cup second round ties; not to mention the NRL.
It presents a window of opportunity for rugby league to explore the viability of live streaming on an ongoing basis, free from the commercial challenges it presents in “normal” times.
Amidst the backdrop of a likely cut to broadcast funding come the end of this year, generating new revenue streams and increasing attractiveness to potential sponsors is crucial, particularly for Championship sides.
For now, live streaming is a necessity – it remains to be seen whether it can be viable in the long-term.
There's a scary amount of rugby league you can watch live between Friday 19 March & Sunday 4 April via Sky/BBC/Our League/Watch NRL – I reckon 49(+8 CCup to be scheduled), and none of them clash… 😳
That's 3,920 minutes, more than 65 hours, across 17 days with more to come…
— James Gordon (@jdgsport) February 22, 2021
The RFL’s Our League platform was launched in 2017 and has more than 160,000 free members.
After broadcasting Super League games to season ticket holders last season, they have now implemented a paywall – enabling fans to pay for each match they watch, or buy a bundle across a weekend.
The price for the opening games in the Championship is £4.95 is bought in advance, or £10 on match day.
What is for sure, is that free streaming simply isn’t viable. It has been great for the French Elite Championship to raise its exposure in the UK, but they too face that same question of how to monetise their offering in the long-term.
Without fans in the ground, it’s less of an issue. But when fans come back, if games remain available for £4.95 to stream, then that will have a detrimental effect on ticket sales and revenue.
📺 The 2021 Rugby League season will begin with a feast of @Betfred Challenge Cup action next month, as well as an Easter weekend of @Betfred Championship fixtures – all to be streamed across three platforms.
— Rugby Football League (@TheRFL) February 19, 2021
On a really basic level, let’s say a family of four could enter a Championship club game for a modest £50, plus any secondary spend, those four could all watch the same match for £4.95 – meaning less than 10% of the usual revenue would be earned.
Clearly the driver for live streaming is to get the wider rugby league audience interested in games not involving their own team. Perhaps a monthly subscription model will become the norm in future, allowing say Super League fans to tune in to watch Newcastle v Widnes, for example, on a Sunday.
Streaming isn’t necessarily the answer to all rugby league’s problems. Every sport at every level is exploring it. It’s unlikely to be a driver of growing your audience; but what it can be, is a great way to maximise your existing audience.
Our League showing its value
This window of opportunity will give real data – both in terms of numbers and finances – on how viable live streaming rugby league is. It will never have a better time to explore, especially as it’s unlikely that when fans return, that games will be staggered to be played at different times.
Mark Foster, RFL Chief Commercial Officer said: “Our League showed its value at Super League level last year when it allowed clubs to provide coverage of their behind closed doors fixtures to season ticket holders – and this is another example of the benefits it can provide for the whole game.
“The RFL were one of the first NGBs in British sport to invest in an OTT platform, which launched in autumn 2017 – we recognised the disruption that was happening within the broadcast world, although obviously we did not envisage these exact circumstances.
“Clubs will be able to offer greater value to their season ticket holders with free coverage of home Betfred Championship games and Challenge Cup ties – and also have the opportunity to generate revenue by offering the games to other supporters on a pay per view basis.
“It’s taken a huge amount of work to get to this point – especially to ensure there are no fixture clashes between Challenge Cup, Championship and Super League fixtures in the opening rounds, which we hope will allow fans of teams at all levels to watch more rugby league than ever, especially over the Easter weekend.
“That’s why we have also introduced day and weekend passes. Championship and League 1 clubs have gone so long without any action, so there should be plenty of pent-up demand – especially considering the quality of teams and players spread through the two leagues.
“We have invested over the last 18 months in improving the quality and reliability of streaming through Our League – with the ability to cast from a phone screen to a television one example of that, as well the possibility of concurrent streaming of more than one match if required, and also improved look and usability in the app.
“That is why we have also set minimum standards for broadcast arrangements of these early season games.
“It’s important we recognise the support of our broadcast partners Sky Sports in allowing us to stream fixtures from the Betfred Super League and Championship.”
To my knowledge, no team sport has really cracked the OTT service yet. It works well in darts, snooker and tennis; but they are all individual sports, ran on prize money, which is different to the day-to-day operations of running an entire club and their associated facilities.
The Football League’s iFollow platform is only relevant usually to a non-UK audience, and has only come to the fore for live streaming due to the behind closed doors nature of the current season. For rugby league, that non-UK audience will remain limited, at least in the short term.
If rugby league can’t get take up on streaming during the current times, well it doesn’t bode well for the future. It has to find the right balance between the decreasing broadcast deals, the costs of running a live stream and the return it generates, and the overall impact on ticket sales, as well as considering the possible commercial benefits of wider exposure.
It will be fascinating to see how it is received, and hopefully rugby league fans up and down the country get behind what could be a significant leap for the Championship in particular.
Your upcoming feast of live rugby league
Fri, March 19: NZ Warriors v Newcastle Knights (7am, Watch NRL), Gold Coast v Brisbane (9am, Sky), Sheffield v York (7:45pm, TBC)
Sat, March 20: Canterbury v Penrith (4am, Watch NRL), Manly v South Sydney (6:30am, Watch NRL), North Queensland v St George Illawarra (8:30am, Watch NRL), Oldham v Barrow (12:45pm), London Broncos v Keighley (3pm), Whitehaven v Dewsbury (5:15pm), Halifax v Batley (7:30pm)
Sun, March 21: Wests v Sydney (5am, Watch NRL), Cronulla v Canberra (7am, Watch NRL), West Wales v Widnes (12:45, BBC), Featherstone v Bradford (3pm, BBC), Swinton v Newcastle (5:15pm)
Thurs, March 25: Penrith v Melbourne (9am, Sky)
Fri, March 26: St George Illawarra v Manly (7am, Watch NRL), South Sydney v Sydney (9am, Sky), St Helens v Salford (6pm, Sky), Leigh v Wigan (8:15pm, Sky)
Sat, March 27: Canberra v NZ Warriors (4am, Watch NRL), Brisbane v Canterbury (6:30am, Watch NRL), Parramatta v Cronulla (8:30am, Sky), Wakefield v Leeds (3pm, Sky), Catalans v Hull KR (5:15pm, Sky)
Sun, March 28: Newcastle v Wests (6am, Watch NRL), North Queensland v Gold Coast (8am, Watch NRL), Hull v Huddersfield (12:30pm, Sky), Castleford v Warrington (2:45pm, Sky)
Thurs, April 1: Manly v Penrith (10am, Watch NRL), Wigan v Wakefield (6pm, Sky), Hull KR v St Helens (8:15pm, Sky)
Fri, April 2: Canterbury v South Sydney (6am, Watch NRL), Melbourne v Brisbane (10am, Watch NRL), Warrington v Leigh (12:45pm, Sky), Leeds v Castleford (3pm, Sky), Oldham v Swinton (5:15pm), Featherstone v Batley (7:30pm)
Sat, April 3: Cronulla v North Queensland (7:30am, Watch NRL), Gold Coast v Canberra (9:30am, Watch NRL), Salford v Hull (12:45pm, Sky), Huddersfield v Catalans (3pm, Sky) York v Toulouse (5:15pm), Dewsbury v Whitehaven (7:30pm)
Sun, April 4: Newcastle v St George Illawarra (7am, Watch NRL), Sydney v NZ Warriors (9am, Watch NRL), Sheffield v Bradford (12:45pm), Halifax v London Broncos (3pm), Newcastle v Widnes (5:15pm)
Games live on Our League app unless otherwise stated.