Will Castle’s TV rights stance doom rugby in Australia?
THIS is Australian rugby's live-or-die moment, and Raelene Castle has taken the game to the precipice.
A 25-year relationship between Rugby Australia and Fox Sports lays in ruin today, after the broadcaster decided to cease actively negotiating for the rights from 2021-25.
There is always brinkmanship and threat during multimillion-dollar negotiations of this kind - part and parcel of the game of rights deals.
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But never before have we seen a situation where effectively both rugby and News Corp have walked away from the table.
Influential figures within RA believe the game is better off with another partner, criticising News Corp's coverage of rugby and its administrators in recent years - particularly Alan Jones' weekly column in The Australian.
They obviously don't read the rugby league pages.
RA chief Castle and Foxtel boss Patrick Delaney haven't spoken in weeks.
Delaney was spotted at the Sail GP launch in Darling Harbour on Thursday morning, but was a notable absentee from the Super Rugby launch a fortnight ago.
Castle is banking on rugby's diehard audience - a key to Fox Sports' subscriber base - as the ace in her pack, the reason the broadcaster will not walk away from the code despite its low ratings.
The audience is loyal, largely in the higher-earning bracket who retain their subscriptions amid a time of lull in Fox's growth.
Fox is calling Castle's bluff, confident if she takes rugby to streaming service Optus, that the game will die.
Optus brought the English Premier League rights for $50 million a year in 2015, then signed on again from 2019-22 for an undisclosed sum. After initial failure in subscription growth, they now have more than 700,000 paying customers.
However, there is no production cost for them. Optus merely takes the feed from Sky and puts their logo on it.
Can they pay what Fox Sports is offering, and then deliver coverage of all Australian games with camera crews, commentators and production staff? And if so, what platform will Optus use to generate the editorial promotion for rugby that will certainly dwindle from News?
And rugby certainly does not have the parochial global tribalism football does, so the audience will shrink drastically, leaving already struggling Super franchises short of sponsor interest.
Amazon and Facebook have also come into the sports broadcasting market, and while they have immense reach, face the same issues as Optus in generating interest for the game - particularly Super Rugby.
And this is why Castle is also keen to get more of the sport on free-to-air television, hoping exposure to more eyeballs will increase interest.
The format from 2021-25 is locked in, with South Africa and New Zealand already signing their broadcast deals.
That means the pesky 2am and 4am games in South Africa watched by a handful remain as part of the package.
When RA cut the Western Force in 2017, as part of a three-team cull to make Super Rugby more appealing, Fox stood by its existing financial deal despite losing content.
The game's stature has steadily declined since then.
Fox have come into the negotiations this time saying to rugby: 'You need us'.
With her actions, Castle has replied: 'You need us more'.
Professional rugby in Australia has never been in such a dire situation.