When the new Super League season kicks off in less than a month’s time, fans will be able to watch every game live for the very first time.
The new three-year TV deal with Sky Sports was confirmed in October and worth in the region of £20m a year.
A free-to-air TV deal to supplement that, reportedly with BBC, is believed to be close to being announced as a follow-on from the past two years of Channel 4 live coverage, made possible by an amendment in the previous Sky deal that enabled games to be made available for terrestrial television.
But despite the continued decline in revenue, the new TV deal now means that all six Super League games each round are going to be broadcast live with Sky responsible for the significant seven-figure production costs of doing so.
The launch of Super League+, rugby league’s new streaming service
For the first 15 rounds of the new season, all six games each weekend will be going out live on Sky Sports TV channels, ahead of their planned launch of a new streaming platform in time for the new football season in the summer to carry their EFL coverage.
That platform will be available to Sky Sports TV subscribers as part of their existing package. For non-Sky customers, Super League will be launching its own in-house streaming service – Super League+ – which will enable fans to subscribe akin to Netflix or pay on a per-game basis.
The Super League+ service will show up to four games each weekend, with the two first-pick games traditionally selected for Sky coverage (e.g. the Thursday and Friday night Sky game) to remain exclusive to them.
So with more coverage than ever before, some fans had been left perplexed as to why Sky were paying less to show even more games.
RL Commercial managing director Rhodri Jones explained: “It provides us with a new revenue line. And not just directly through streaming.
“Sky are paying for all of the production of these matches, so that’s a significant investment by them and gives us a shot in the arm to create this new revenue line.
“In addition, the audience around it gives the ability to implement commerciality around the matches, whether that be break bumpers, banners during play and those kind of bits.
“We now have a video referee at every game, so we now have a big screen at every game, so suddenly some of your old assets are now refreshed by virtual that more people are seeing those assets. That ‘Try / No Try’ sequence on the video referee decision is now more commercially viable and worth more money to us than it ever has been before.
“So it’s not just the fact that streaming generates revenue, all the other elements gives us opportunity.
“We announced before Christmas that now because all of the games are available live, we’ve been able to work with the guys at IMG Arena to sell the streaming rights in to betting shops, which is another revenue line we’ve never had before.”
How can rugby league capitalise on the commercial opportunities from showing every game?
It’s often stated that being on free-to-air television is critical for rugby league to grow, both in terms of fans and sponsors. But despite the Challenge Cup continually being on free-to-air, with a game shown in every round, attendances have been falling.
However, RL Commercial are confident that they can make the most of the increased eye-balls that not only free-to-air, but having every game broadcast live whether it on TV or otherwise, will bring.
Jones added: “It supports the commercial conversations that we’re having in that now every game is live, the expectation is that there are bigger audiences.
“For those commercial brands that are looking for a breadth of audience, suddenly we become a very attractive proposition. We know that free to air is a massive pull.
“And then in terms of the sport itself, why would we not want to talk about the sport? It’s a fantastic sport. And I think 2024 will be fairly unprecedented in terms of we’ve never had it so good in terms of profile, visibility and audience.
“It gives us an opportunity to show the sport off, show our clubs off. People still recognise the Wigans of the 80s and 90s, and the Leeds of the 2000s, well actually we’ve got some new breed of clubs coming through likes the Hull KRs, the Leighs, for example.
“Then the third bit for us is our athletes. You look at (darts player) Luke ‘The Nuke’ Littler for example, he’s 16-years-old but he’s helped lift and promote darts beyond anywhere else it’s been. It shows the power of a sports person with a profile, being successful.”
Littler harboured support from his beloved Warrington Wolves on his remarkable journey to the PDC World Championship darts final, while St Helens full-back Jack Welsby was present at the event at Alexandra Palace to show support to staunch St Helens fan and now former World Champion Michael Smith.
Jones said: “To give the likes of Jack Welsby and Harry Newman the platform to play on the BBC more regularly is key. If there is a free-to-air deal in place, then that doubles and nearly triples the amount of content their output is delivering.
“We’re then giving our players a platform to really show people how good athletes they are. And while we can bang the drum about Super League, we’re now finding that learning from IMG, people are now more following athletes over teams, and so we need to propel our athletes into those spheres, and that’s what free-to-air gives us.”
Opening up new revenue streams for Super League
The price-point of Super League+ is expected to be at a similar level to what has been experienced via the Our League app for one-off games, while the monthly subscription will give fans the best value.
The new Super League+ will sit side-by-side with Our League, which will continue to broadcast games from the Challenge Cup and other RFL competitions, while The Sportsman has also announced a deal recently about them streaming 20 live games over the season.
For Super League, the fact every single game in the competition will now be available to watch creates significant commercial opportunity that RL Commercial must now seek to exploit.
A high-level of production quality is expected to be maintained for even the non-televised games, so multiple camera angles and shots will be available. Traditionally, streamed games might have only been provided with one or two fixed cameras, which won’t be the case when it comes to Super League+.
The popularity of the NFL in the UK has highlighted the demand for streaming live coverage and accessible content. Fans of the NFL can subscribe to NFL Game Pass for the whole season for around £50, which perhaps create unrealistic expectations for fans of other sports.
The stumbling block for live streaming is often the quality of production, which of course can be resolved if the linear TV partner is committed to producing all games from a competition.
The Watch NRL platform has enabled UK fans to subscribe to watch every NRL game live, jumping off the back of the TV production investment to broadcast games Down Under. Watch NRL is currently available for around £120 paid annual, or at £23 per month.
Super League+ are hoping to announce details of its subscription service shortly.