Ulster Rugby: uncertainty over TV future

Ulster's Luke Marshall runs at  Wasps during the game at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast in October.' Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Ulster's Luke Marshall runs at Wasps during the game at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast in October.' Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Ulster Rugby has been unable to give a definitive response on reports that rights to broadcast the team’s fixtures next year will be moving from the BBC to pay-to-view television.

It was reported today that from next year, Guinness PRO14 broadcast rights are set to go to Premier Sports, which is owned by the Luxembourg-registered Premier Media.

The Belfast Telegraph reported: “While the company also own FreeSports, a channel currently free to 20 million homes in the UK, it seems that two separate subscriptions will be needed to see every match broadcast next year, and it is hard to envisage some games not slipping through the cracks.”

However Ulster Rugby says it is not yet aware of the details. A spokesman noted that television rights are a matter for PRO14, which runs the competition, involving teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales.

“There is speculation that Freesports is in the bidding and if it gets the contract it will be free to air, not pay per view,” he added.

However the News Letter pointed out that Freesports is owned by Premier Media, which also owns pay per view channel Premier Sports.

When asked if next year’s game might therefore end up being a mixture of free and pay-per-view, the Ulster Rugby spokesman said he could not say and that this would be a decision between PRO14 and any bidder.

However BBC Northern Ireland believes the games will not be free to view.

A BBC spokesman told the News Letter: “It is our understanding that the UK-wide TV rights to the Pro 14 tournament from next season are to be awarded to a pay provider. BBC Northern Ireland, BBC Scotland, BBC Wales, BBC Alba and S4C put together a competitive joint bid to secure the Pro14 broadcasting rights for the next cycle, including a financial uplift and significant production commitments across the three nations. We were keen to enhance and grow what has been a long-term partnership with the Celtic League, and had hoped to continue to bring our audiences high quality coverage of Ulster’s matches in the Pro 14 which has proven to be so popular.”

PRO14 did not give a definitive answer, saying it would not do so until all details are settled.

It said in a statement: “After the successful expansion into South Africa the Guinness PRO14 is continuing to grow in strength with unprecedented interest leading to rising attendances, increased broadcast viewers and an upsurge in social media engagement.

“As PRO14 Rugby plans for the exciting seasons ahead, the Championship has overseen a highly-competitive tender process with multiple Pay and Free to Air operators across the UK & Republic of Ireland bidding for the broadcast rights in those territories.

“PRO14 Rugby is currently concluding negotiations for these rights ahead of the 2018/19 season and will confirm the final position to partners and supporters once the formal agreements are in place.”