As the battle between the NRL and its broadcast partners has heated up, it has become clear the broadcasters are not necessarily interested in the survival of the game, more how much money they can save.
Nine launched that incredible broadside back in April, accusing the NRL of being unable to manage its money. Those comments of course, attributed to an “unnamed spokesperson” despite it being published on Nine’s masthead.
Then in late April and into early May it was revealed Nine wanted control of NRL Digital because it turns a healthy profit.
So on one hand you have the game’s chief broadcaster attacking it because it supposedly can’t handle financial management and on the other that same broadcaster wants a profitable digital arm the NRL operates independently.
It’s very clear Nine sees NRL Digital as a future threat to its monopoly on freely available rugby league content given Fox’s paywall.
Nine then announced in early May that there is a possibility it won’t return to the negotiating table for the next broadcast deal.
It has since apparently backed down from that stance as the NRL has looked to downgrade the current deal thanks to the need for immediate cashflow.
The NRL though, would be wise to seek out a streaming service, given the growth in the online platforms and the drop in traditional TV broadcasting.
The Australian Financial Review’s Max Mason crunched the numbers over the past two decades of broadcast deals, revealing the NRL deal has increased from a $400 million deal in 2001 to a $1.8 billion deal in 2018.
However, as Mason points out, the allure of Nine using the NRL to advertise its other shows is quickly losing its lustre given the rise in digital streaming services.
Fans are unlikely to watch a Friday night game and then keep it on Nine to watch Lethal Weapon 2. Nor are they likely to see the ads for yet another reality TV show and remember to switch over on Monday night.
Fans want immediacy and they don’t want ads. The rise in Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and others means the fans come for the football, then head to a streaming outlet for the rest of their entertainment.
The NRL already stream to an extent, through its deal with Telstra. The telco purchases the streaming rights from Fox and provides that stream to the NRL through the NRL app.
Rugby league itself is already a popular streaming sport despite not having an out and out streaming partner. According to Telstra, over 300 million minutes of NRL action were streamed in 2019 through the NRL app with the average amount of streaming minutes increasing seven per cent year on year.
The streaming of Australian sport has also grown quickly. Telstra’s Live Pass, which encompasses the NRL, AFL, netball and the A-League passed 3 million subscribers in 2019, a 29 per cent jump on the same time in 2018.
That means they’ve added close to one million subscribers in 12 months.
Streaming the NRL though is still a bit of a patchwork. The Telstra Live Pass and NRL app can only be utilised on mobile due to the NRL’s deal with Fox and Kayo. Nine also supplies live streams of its matches, although it ran into problems during last year’s Origin series when the network underestimated streaming demand and the feed crashed.
Where to stream?
Sport streaming in Australia is itself something still being figured out as it is around the world.
The NFL has its own Game Pass where fans subscribe directly to the NFL and watch the NFL’s own coverage.
This is an expensive endeavour to set up as it essentially requires the game to become a broadcaster.
The NRL could assign full time streaming rights at its next deal to Nine or Fox instead of allowing streaming to bounce between Kayo and Nine depending on who has the live game rights.
Kayo has every game live, however it’s only available via the Kayo app which runs on most mobile devices but only a handful of Smart TVs, but can be Chromecast. Kayo also costs $25 per month and includes a raft of other sports with no option to only sign up for rugby league. The price point can be a concern for fans.
Kayo also bled subscribers during the shut down of the NRL season. At one point it was offering its service for $2.50 per month. If there is anything the pandemic proved to NRL HQ it’s that rugby league fans virtually bank roll Kayo at the moment and there is an opportunity for the game in the streaming world.
Optus Sport could also enter the arena. The telco has already lobbed some $150 million into the EPL to be its streaming partner in Australia.
It has since bought the rights to international football, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, K-League and the Champions League. Since its hiccup during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Optus has gone from strength to strength in its coverage of live sport.
Its service also operates on mobile devices and allows it to be Chromecast to Smart TVs. Optus has also stated a TV app is in the works.
RLM did approach Optus for comment but the telco declined to make a statement.
Streaming helps the non-TV teams
As the latest NRL Draw was released, it became apparent that with the game wholly dependent on TV rights for the time being, the popular TV teams were being prioritised.
The likes of Brisbane, Parramatta, the Roosters and Rabbitohs have all been handed a swag of prime time games. They have large, active fan bases and are the four highest ratings teams on TV.
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart pointed out that his side made the grand final last year but have been shafted when it comes to prime time games, impacting the club’s sponsors.
Telstra’s streaming statistics show that Canberra were in fact the most popular team when it came to online views. The Green Machine had fans tuning in for 43.5 million minutes last season.
The Knights came in second at 43 million, while the Warriors had 42.95 million and Manly pulled in 41.7 million.
Those four sides had very few free to air games and as such, their fans had to access streaming to watch live games.
For the NRL, a full time streaming partner that provides a fully inclusive service could ensure teams operate on a more even footing when it comes to TV coverage.
Live coverage is incredibly important to clubs. Their sponsors pay to be on TV and to get eyeballs on the jerseys, shorts, padding and electronic advertising signs.
Providing an easy to access streaming service would increase the value of each club’s sponsorships as their fans will be able to watch more of their games.
Streaming is the future of live sport. The NRL needs to move with the times.