Sky Sports and rugby league in the UK go hand and hand. The broadcaster has been with the Super League competition since its birth in 1996.
On the eve of Super League XXII we picked the brain of Neville Smith, the man in charge of Sky’s rugby league offering. We asked him about how the pay TV operator plans to replace the retired Mike Stephensen, its plans for the new season, where it stands on showing Championship games, the future of Eddie Hemmings and much, much more.
Smith began by talking about Sky’s innovations for 2017.
“We’re going into new territory with our commentary and presentation.
“We’re enhancing the graphics last year that we carry on our news service.
“We’re aiming to get a camera on a player in the Warrington vs Brisbane World Club series match, it will be the first one that’s been used in a rugby league game and the first time it’s been used in a contact sport.
“We did a test the other day so at the moment were probably 80% there, we’ve just got to make a couple of adjustments.
“The most important thing is player safety, the player wearing the camera but also the opposition players.
“So there’s a few things we need to adjust but we did a test on Monday (last week) so fingers crossed. All being well Kurt Gidley will be wearing the camera on the match.
“There’s still a few hurdles to get over and all going well we will publish edits of it online and get Kurt on the next day at the Wigan vs Cronulla game to talk about it.”
“The bottom line there is how do you replace Stevo? He’s unique.
“He was a legend, he had a fantastic career. I’d say you can’t replace someone like Stevo, him and Eddie were such an iconic pairing but what we have been doing over the last 10 years we’ve been preparing for it.
“There’s no need to do any drastic changes but what I’ve done is build a team around it and that will be that Barrie and Terry will feature in the commentary with Eddie alongside them.
“Barrie and Terry will be the main two wingmen for Eddie, Jon wells will do his bit, for the presentation Brian will now become the main presenter and Phil will be alongside him.
“Especially on Thursday nights where at beginning of the league we will be extending the programme to an hour’s build up, so we will get a review of the week’s news, and then look ahead to the whole weekend, and then finally getting into the nitty gritty of the Thursday night game.
“Jon and Brian’s half-time show will continue and then post-match will be similar to what you’ve seen last year.
“We’ve got a lot of activity around social media as well Facebook Live with Barrie and Terry, the Barrie and Terry Facebook Live at the beginning of the match was really popular getting big figures for coming on just before the end of the game.
“Also what we’ll be doing this year is really ramping up our digital publishing of a match, especially on a Sunday.
“We will be offering up clips on a Sunday afternoon for in-play incidents – tries, all those bits and pieces – and all being well we will have tries edits within a few minutes of the full-time whistle of each of those games.
“That’s something we’ve worked on in the last two years and if you’ve got the opportunity to do it getting the live feed from the matches, and now we’ve got the chance to exploit that and give a good service to the fans.
“The long-term plan and hoping not too long away on a Sunday afternoon a digital appointment will be a continuing rolling blog of all the other games with clips published so people can follow that as it happens.
“They can be outside flying their kites with the kids, or they can sitting on the bus but as long as they’ve got a good 4G connection they can keep up to speed with all the afternoon’s Super League.”
“There’s one or two suggestions about the Championship but generally speaking our focus will be… I won’t say our focus will be Super League but certainly what I can promise you is the Championship is not off our radar. It’s not something we’re going to just ignore but we have to put the resources into the elite league competition.
“What we try and do is offer a very good service to rugby league fans, in all reality you’re probably not going to get as many people watching the Championship match and every time you set up an OB [an outside broadcast] it’s costing the business.
“It’s something that we do feel very strongly about and we want to try and complete the service in as much as possible across the game. There are one or two other areas that we are looking at.”
The Super 8s concept
“We’ve seen two great Million Pound games. We bought into it, we promote it, we’re happy with what were getting from it.
“There’s probably one or two tweaks that can be made but those are game issues not ours. We don’t instruct or influence how the game is structured. They put this together and I think we’ve had some fantastic competition in the Qualifying 8s.
“The Million Pound game it causes a stir, it causes some controversy but the reality is if the game wants promotion and relegation then that’s its choice and therefore somewhere and somehow someone’s going to get relegated.
“Certainly the Million Pound game last year between Hull KR and Salford that day was our second highest rating programme of the year, it was massive success as an event.
“It delivered a huge audience and delivered emotion, heartache, drama it was almost as dramatic as Ryan Hall’s try in the Leeds vs Huddersfield game the year before where the League Leader’s Shield was decided in the last 10 seconds of the season, that was fantastic.
“How a team can surrender an eight-point lead three minutes from full time was incredible. I’m desperately sorry for Hull KR, they are a great club, but as I said the game itself chose to go down the promotion and relegation route.
“I think we had licensing for six years, the sporting culture in this country desires something different therefore the game took this choice and it’s delivered a Million Pound game and the model for that was the one they all talked about and that was the Wakefield vs Castleford relegation match in whatever year that was.
“Everybody talked about that but the facy was in just under 20 years that was the only time it happened, the rest of the time you had teams relegated six weeks out, eight weeks out.
“I think the concept of the Million Pound game is a good one and certainly there’s no question that as an event it has delivered and that’s something for the game itself to debate.
“We don’t apply pressure [to the RFL] either way, we don’t say you’ve got to have that if you use those games for something different. We embrace that and get on with that but I have a suspicion they want to continue with it.”
“The Magic Weekend is fantastic and all credit to Nigel Wood, that was his idea and he put it out there and we all went what’s this about and it was pretty successful in its first year.
“Certainly from that point on its building and I think they’ve found a great home in Newcastle. The town is absolutely rocking on a Saturday night, you’ve got six sensational games, it delivers for the players a grand final atmosphere, it’s a grand final arena.
“The players that would normally not get to play on that sort of stage and without fail it delivers at least one or two dramatic moments. There’s all the colour of it, the fans in party mode and dressed up.
“It doesn’t matter where you point the cameras at you’ve got something to look at and have a laugh at and watch people enjoying themselves. I think it’s probably one of the greatest advertisements for what rugby league is all about. We call it the family sport, we call it everything else and that’s what it is.
“Hull KR playing Hull and the fans all sat together and we’ve got shots of the Hull families in different coloured shirts in the red and the black just enjoying themselves. I’m a massive fan of Magic.”
Bidding for NRL and State of Origin rights in the future
“Never say never, those rights are sewn up or another couple of years anyway I think. So they’re not out in the market place at the moment, obviously it would be great [if we had them].
“We think we’re the home of rugby league, it would be terrific but also there’s another broadcaster out there that has them on and is doing a good job.”
Super League ratings
“The figures were up [in 2016 compared to 2015], I think overall they were up and certainly Thursday nights have been a success. On screen the figures there are on a par with the Friday nights.
“The Catalans matches do well and bearing in mind that’s not our broadcast as much as were taking a feed in from the French coverage.
“Friday nights are just solid as a rock and Thursday nights are certainly becoming that way, the figures are on a par with the Friday nights.”
Reducing the World Club Series
“That’s an issue for the game, I championed the whole thing a few years ago.
“I think it’s probably a shame in some ways that the World Club Series wasn’t established in 1996 when the whole Super League started, it was put out and it was going to be the top four teams from each country.
“1997 was a bit of a let down when all the clubs played. In terms of the resurrection and expansion into a series, we are still 100% behind it. I think it’s a shame its gone from three to two games but that’s what the game has decided is best for its business and we’ll support it.
“What I love about it again is the colours. I love the thought of seeing Warrington’s and Brisbane’s colours up against each other. Wigan and Cronulla should be sensational, that should be a terrific afternoon.
“In terms of where they go with it next year I think we’ll just have to wait and see. Last year was a disappointment with the results, especially with the Leeds results, and I think that blocked out the fact that the Wigan vs Brisbane game the year before went to extra-time and Warrington vs St George Illawarra was close.
“Souths were just awesome and very powerful. Last year was disappointing – you’ve got Leeds coming off the back of first of all losing the three legends then Danny McGuire getting injured in the first match the week before. You couldn’t count for that, you couldn’t factor that in and then you’re playing Johnathan Thurston.
“Maybe I’m just very optimistic – the Four Nations was a disappointment… but with Wigan vs Cronulla, I actually think Wigan will win that one.”
The future of the commentary team
“Eddie is and has been the voice of rugby league for 40 years, and I think this year should be a tribute to him for all the work he has done and put in as presenter and commentator.
“It was Eddie and Stevo in presentation, Eddie and Stevo in commentary for a long, long time. We’ve built up a team around them. Eddie is a supreme broadcaster, he is an outstanding broadcaster, he’s an outstanding commentator and one of the ways we judge that if you like is when we edit piece music pieces and we take Eddie’s commentary grab the timing is always immaculate, the voice is immaculate, the tone and the most important thing is just the enjoyment and enthusiasm and what he will get with Barrie and Terry is the same thing.
“The three of them love working together, we tinkered with the whole thing when Stevo had his hip operation last year and he was off for quite a while and that in commentary was the right combination we found.
“Phil offers very good support with analysis which he’ll come in. Brian and Phil work together very, very well in presentation they’re both big students of the match and the game and spend a bit of time preparing and thinking about it.
“Jon Wells is I think one of the most articulate and capable people on the touch screen in any sport. The pieces we’ve done with him and the players, and two that really stand out from last year are Trent Robinson and Johnathan Thurston they were just television gold.
“We’ve got a great team, we really do have a great bunch of people with a fantastic track record in the game and a terrific broadcasting record.”
Eddie Hemmings’ future
“He’s one of my best mates and I’ve stood on his foot and pinned him to the wall and made him promise me another couple of years at least. I’ve got it into him to hang around for a bit longer and Eddie deserves that time as well not only to develop the others, which is part of his mission, but also its been Eddie and Stevo for a long, long time.
“Eddie and Stevo are a brand, Eddie’s a brand on his own as well. I want to make sure he gets that recognition in the next couple of years.”