BT Sport will become the home of the European Rugby Champions Cup and the European Rugby Challenge Cup from 2018 onwards after securing the rights to broadcast live coverage of all of the tournaments’ matches.
Starting from the 2018/19 season, the new four-year agreement with European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) will see BT Sport cover up to 134 matches over nine weekends from both of rugby union’s elite European club competitions.
In addition, the EPCR has also confirmed that free-to-air coverage of the tournaments will return from 2018, with Rugby World Cup broadcaster ITV reportedly in close to securing a deal to broadcast at least one match per week.
The new deal means European rugby will revert to one pay-TV broadcaster from 2018/19 onwards, with senior sources at European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), the body that controls and organises the competitions, previously describing the split coverage between Sky Sports and BT Sport “very unsatisfactory”.
With the EPCR preferring to partner with a single pay-TV provider this time around, BT Sport outbid its chief rivals for the rights, bringing Sky Sports’ long-running coverage of European rugby union to an end after 15 years.
The current £24.3m shared deal between Sky Sports and BT Sport deal was a last-minute comprise which ended a bitter two-year row between the Anglo-French clubs and rugby’s authorities over the structure of the competitions and their TV rights.
But despite the backing of the UK’s two prominent pay-TV sports broadcasters for the competitions, EPCR sources described the arrangement “not optimal” and claimed that it “wasn’t working very well” for Sky and BT in terms of split coverage and viewing figures.
BT Sport’s exclusive pay-TV deal for European rugby adds to its growing portfolio of live rugby union, which also includes Aviva Premiership and Anglo-Welsh Cup matches, while the broadcaster is also in the frame to secure Scotland’s home international matches.
Commenting on the new deal, Andy Haworth, BT’s managing director of content and strategy, said:
“BT Sport is now the home of elite European rugby, as well as the home of Aviva Premiership Rugby. We’re proud to have won all of the live rights for this fantastic competition. We’re extremely passionate about our rugby coverage and will continue to work hard to grow the profile of the sport.”
BT’s complete acquisition of all European rugby rights could leave Sky Sports with just Guinness Pro12 and TOP14 matches as its remaining club rugby output from 2018, although it does retain live rights to England and Ireland home internationals until 2020, except Six Nations matches, and has covered every British & Irish Lions Tour exclusively live since 1997.
Sky Sports coverage of European rugby stretches back to 2003 when it picked up exclusive rights to the Heineken Cup from the BBC, retaining its exclusivity on the competition through to its demise in 2014, when it was replaced by the Champions Cup following protracted political wranglings within the sport.
Vincent Gaillard, chief executive officer of EPCR, said:
“The interest that we have seen through the tender process shows how the tournaments continue to go from strength-to-strength. Having one premium pay-television broadcaster in BT Sport will simplify the viewing experience for those fans and coverage on free-to-air television will give greater exposure to our outstanding rugby experiences.
“We are delighted to move to a single pay-TV platform for European club rugby with a premium broadcaster in BT Sport, who share our commitment to the promotion of our competitions. We look forward to further developing that relationship to continually create outstanding rugby experiences for fans across the United Kingdom and Ireland.”
One season remains on the existing deal with both BT Sport and Sky Sports sharing the rights to broadcast the competitions.
In a statement, the EPCR thanked both broadcasters for “their support and the quality of their coverage and look forward to another exciting season of European professional club rugby”.
EPCR has also added that it has reserved a selected package of rights that will guarantee the return of free-to-air coverage of European rugby union in the UK, which the governing body says will allow it to “meet its key objective of taking its matches to a larger audience”.
Early indications suggest ITV is in the frame to secure a deal to broadcast at least one live match per week, as well as a highlights package.