To stream or not to stream?

James Gordon

The RFL decision to live stream the upcoming international between England and Samoa online behind a paywall has been hit by much criticism.

It’s a bold move that doesn’t appear to have gained the much maligned governing body any favours.

But what else is new?

Rugby league is in a tricky place when it comes to broadcasting. Sky own the rights, including online, to the top three leagues until 2021 for an alleged sum that many pundits and fans claimed wasn’t enough.

Those same people are now criticising the RFL for turning down an offer from the BBC to show the Samoa game that was deemed under market value.

Instead of compromising future negotiations and underselling itself, the RFL has opted to stream the game and take any revenue itself – a move that may well open up further opportunities.

The reality is that TV figures are dwindling and a strategy for live streaming moving forward is needed.

The game is hampered by Sky’s apparent unwillingness to do anything with the rights, other than show three Super League games online per week with highlights online.

Critics of the, as yet to be officially announced, decision to stream and not gift it to the BBC claim that the media coverage it brings is much needed for the game.

That may be true. But in 2013, the World Cup was forced to Premier Sports having decided not to take an offer from Sky in the hope that the BBC would take the whole tournament, which of course it didn’t.

The game’s issues are far wider than a salary cap increase or having games on BBC. These are the same people that still think national newspaper coverage is critical to growth.

People want to watch games at their fingertips. This has been proven, ironically by the BBC, when streaming early round Challenge Cup games this season.

The cost of a Sky Sports subscription is bemoaned, especially given the cuts made to rugby league coverage owing to its insane investment in to football.

Premier Sports is great for NRL, but its chances of become the rugby league fan’s channel was shunted by the new TV deal (interestingly, they’ve also been shunted by the UK’s Elite Ice Hockey League).

You see rugby league fans say “if there was a rugby league channel I’d subscribe” – well what if this was a pre cursor to that happening?

There are still TV games but every other game available on stream through a subscription service.

The added eyeballs and reach supposedly goes towards increasing commercial opportunities – which is the real issue the game faces.

Rugby league needs to stop comparing itself to rugby union.

It should count itself fortunate that it gets a handout from Sky – most other sports don’t.

To compare, every single game in the British Basketball League (crowds no less than Championship RL) is live streamed through a subscription service, or via distribution partners (such as betting partners – on a smaller screen). One match per week is live streamed via the BBC Sport website.

Top level ice hockey in this country, which boasts attendances towards the lower end of Super League / top end of Championship, has been completely off air this season having turned down Premier Sports’ offer in the hope of landing a stream deal with BBC.

Say a rugby league streaming channel was launched at £10 a month.

It would need roughly 150,000 monthly subscribers to match the current (reported) Sky handout.

That’s without the commercial revenue from advertising that could be brought in (before, during, after streams).

Streaming companies have already sat up and took notice of the news and will be watching

But don’t forget, this is just one game.

You’d think given the social media reaction that the RFL had sold its soul.

The reality is, the game is at Sky’s mercy until 2021 and international rugby league is the only real opportunity to explore new avenues right now.