Super League cashes in

THE 12 Super League clubs have given their seal of approval to deals worth in excess of £50m that will see Sky and the BBC continue to share television coverage of rugby league until at least 2011.

Although not the substantial increase on the current broadcast contracts that many clubs had hoped for, the new three-year agreement with Sky will allow Super League to expand into a 14-team competition from 2009 and provide much-needed financial backing for the National Leagues.

The upgraded Sky contract will also see Super League clubs enjoy a modest increase in the 800,000-per-year they currently receive from the satellite broadcaster.

The deal was brokered on the clubs' behalf by the Rugby Football League, who have also agreed a three-year extension with the BBC which will see the Challenge Cup remain on terrestrial television until the end of the 2011 season.

In addition, the BBC have secured from Sky the rights to broadcast live one England international per season plus a Test match featuring a touring side and will continue to televise highlights from the Super League play-offs and grand final.

Both contracts have still to be signed but the RFL, for whom negotiations were led by the International Management Group, yesterday won support from the sport's elite clubs after presenting the proposals at a secret meeting in Leeds.

"These broadcast agreements are tremendous news for rugby league," said the RFL's executive chairman Richard Lewis. "The negotiations have resulted in a healthy revenue increase, thus giving us a great platform to continue our successful growth and future development.

"The contracts also ensure club stability and create the opportunity to invest in the National Leagues and the community game. The outcome clearly demonstrates that rugby league is a highly prized and valuable broadcast property which is followed by millions of viewers on a regular basis.

"We are highly delighted to be renewing what has been a long term and very successful partnership with Sky. They have followed the Super League competition since its inception and our new agreement with them means their innovative, excellent and exciting coverage of our sport will continue and develop.

"The new agreement means Sky Sports will show more matches than ever before and we will work in partnership with them to continue to grow the audience for our game.

"It is also tremendous news that we have extended and expanded what has been a highly successful multi-faceted partnership with the BBC.

"The Challenge Cup is now set to continue as a highly successful and key element of the BBC's portfolio of major national events, the new live coverage of the England team is without doubt a tremendous development and their highlights packages of engage Super League and the international game mean these exciting events reach an even greater range of viewers."

The RFL are remaining tight-lipped about the value of both contracts, but the Yorkshire Post understands that the Super League clubs could each receive around 900,000-per-year from 2009, an increase which just about covers the effects of inflation since the last Sky deal was completed in 2004. That five-year contract was worth 53m, a total which included 5m for international rights.

However, the way in which the 50m from the new deal will be shared remains uncertain and there is a distinct possibility that some element of means testing could be introduced in both competitions with payouts made conditional on clubs meeting minimum standards in set criteria, including junior development, facilities and infrastructure.

The RFL have already announced that Super League clubs will be graded into three categories from 2009 and that grading could be linked to dividends made from central funds by the governing body.

At yesterday's meeting the RFL were told to draw up proposals for distribution of the broadcasting revenue for clubs to consider and vote upon at a future date.

The sums involved in the new deals serve to illustrate how well rugby league did back in 1995 when the sport agreed a five-year contract with Sky worth 87m. That was subsequently re-negotiated to a 46m four-year deal in 1998 when the Super League clubs effectively bought out their counterparts in the lower division.

Some Super League club officials did feel that the current contract undervalued the competition and were hoping for a significant increase which reflected the strides the sport has made by expanding into France and investing widely in new stadiums.

It was thought the presence of Irish-based Setanta would introduce much-needed competition in the bargaining process, but the subscription channel appear to have shown little interest in bidding, despite having poached rights to screen Australian NRL matches from Sky 12 months ago.

The increase at least allows Super League to realise its ambition to embrace another two clubs in 2009, when the competition will introduce a licensing system that eschews automatic promotion and relegation.

The value of rugby league's broadcast rights pales compared to those of sports like football and cricket, both of which have secured much more lucrative deals from Sky. In 2006 Sky paid 220m for the rights to televise domestic and international cricket over the next four years and an eye-watering 1.7bn or 4.8m per match, for Premiership football until 2009.