Why the BBC and rugby league need each other

Wigan Warriors lift the trophy after winning the Betfred Super League final/Why the BBC and rugby league need each other
Super League matches will now be televised live on the BBC - PA/Richard Sellers

Heaven knows rugby league has made enough attempts to reinvent itself down the years, often with little success. But 2024 is being viewed as a genuine breakthrough season for the sport.

Significantly, it will be the first time that Super League matches will be televised live on the BBC after a three-year broadcast deal with Rugby League Commercial was struck.

The Corporation has been synonymous with the Challenge Cup for decades, but Sky Sports has been the game’s paymaster and shown Super League matches almost exclusively since the competition’s formation in 1996.

In 2022, Channel 4 secured a two-year deal to show a small number of Super League games free-to-air, a move designed to widen the code’s appeal, but no money changed hands. Now, however, the new BBC is paying to screen 15 games per season, 10 on network television and the rest across the BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website. This, in addition to its regular Challenge Cup offering and Super League highlights, will also be available the day after games on the BBC Sport website.

Mark Chapman alongside the Rugby League World Cup
The BBC has a long history with rugby league - Shutterstock

The BBC has been criticised for the gradual decline of sport it shows with live rights in an increasingly competitive market. Golf and cricket are two sports that have particularly been affected, while in the other code there is no guarantee that the Six Nations will remain on the BBC in the long-term. Signing the Super League deal is, therefore, considered a boost for both parties.

Furthermore, Sky Sports is televising every Super League match for the first time this season. It is easy to see why optimism abounds in the 13-a-side code right now.

Detailing the BBC deal, Rugby League Commercial managing director Rhodri Jones told Telegraph Sport: “We spoke to the four main free-to-air broadcasters and it was quite clear early on that it was going to be between the BBC and Channel 4.

“As one conversation fell away, due to a business decision at Channel 4, we were able to progress talks with the BBC. We knew they were very passionate about rugby league and saw live Super League as an opportunity to embed themselves further into the sport.”

Rugby league’s perennial challenge has been to gain greater relevance outside its traditional northern enclaves.

Yet Jones is confident the BBC showing Super League games – starting with the Castleford-Wigan on Saturday teatime – can give the code far greater visibility.

“The opportunities are endless now and the BBC coverage certainly provides the ingredients to enable the game to grow,” he added. “But the challenge will be how we capitalise on it and, having given the players and coaches this platform, how do we build the audience and become a regular talking point?

“Many people remember the halcyon days of the great Wigan team, with players like Shaun Edwards and Martin Offiah, and a lot of that was down to them playing live on the BBC. We’ve now got the opportunity to rekindle that relationship between our best players and the sporting public, not just the rugby league followers, and make them household names.

“That’s probably something that’s not been the case for the past 10 to 20 years, bar the odd exception with the likes of Paul Sculthorpe, Kevin Sinfield and Rob Burrow. Everyone is hopeful that the likes of Jack Welsby, Harry Newman and Jai Field will shine on the days when they are live on the BBC.”

St Helens' Jack Welsby
St Helens' Jack Welsby is one of the stars of Super League - PA/Martin Rickett

Jones said Sky Sports had no issue with RL Commercial jumping into bed with the BBC, whose Super League Show will be replaced by a highlights package on the BBC website.

“Terrestrial coverage is huge and the BBC has the biggest audience on the free-to-air channels,” said presenter Tanya Arnold, who will front the coverage of Saturday’s Castleford-Wigan game on BBC2.

“Therefore it’s a very significant link-up for rugby league and for the BBC. Having the highlights package on a website – which is the biggest of its kind with 20 million unique views per week – offers huge potential for the sport.

“Rugby league needs as many eyes on it as possible and having all the games on BBC television and Sky Sports certainly provides that. If rugby league’s not in a healthier place at the end of these three years then we probably all need to worry.”

In addition to the BBC deal and Sky Sports televising every game, a new streaming platform has been created in the form of SuperLeague+ for 2024.

Meanwhile, all Catalans Dragons fixtures will be shown in France and Spain in another broadcast first for the competition.

The broadcast deals come against a backdrop of RL Commercial’s 12-year strategic partnership with IMG that was announced in May 2022 to restructure and reimagine the game.

The media giants have introduced a grading system to rank clubs on a range of criteria – including fanbase, stadium, finances and on-field performance – and decide their league placings.

Membership of the Super League in 2025 will be determined by the top 12 teams in the 2024 rankings, which will be announced at the culmination of this season. Clubs with an A grade will be guaranteed a Super League spot, thus becoming exempt from relegation, while the rest of the top flight will be made up of the best-ranked B grade clubs.

Progress, finally, is being felt and Jones added: “We’ve spent the past six months working really hard behind the scenes.

“A lot of that work has come to fruition and we’re now at a point where we need to deliver now.”

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