Rugby Union: BBC hits back with European Cup deal

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The Independent Online
WHO NEEDS Des Lynam and his super-suave moustache when you can have a dozen broken noses, a gross of cauliflower ears and some pugilistic spectaculars on the killing fields of south-west France? The BBC's hard- pressed sports executives, driven into a flurry of activity by the abrupt departure of the housewives' favourite to their rivals, yesterday agreed a multi-million pound deal with the organisers of the European Cup, writes Chris Hewett.

Together with British Eurosport, the satellite broadcaster, and FR2/3, the French television company, the BBC has applied its thumbprint to a contract worth more than pounds 50m over four years. The European Rugby Cup board had been hoping to generate seasonal broadcasting revenue of pounds 15m and has therefore fallen slightly short, but ERC sources are confident that with live big-time rugby back on terrestrial screens, sponsorship rights can now be sold at a higher price than originally anticipated.

The BBC, which is thought to be paying ERC around pounds 6m a year, will show nine live matches this year: one game on each of the six pool weekends, plus three knock-out ties from the quarter-final stage onwards. European Cup rugby is seen as a central plank of a rejuvenated Grandstand on Saturday afternoons.

"What is really pleasing is that the BBC... will transmit to a maximum terrestrial audience in the UK," said Jean-Pierre Lux, the ERC chairman, "and that in turn will be hugely beneficial both to competing teams... and to our commercial partners in securing long-term sponsorship." Those partners, the Swiss-based sports marketing group ISL, are now seeking a raft of elite sponsors and should generate enough revenue to assure participating clubs something approaching pounds 1m per campaign.

It remains to be seen whether Heineken, who played a major part in establishing European rugby, secures a new deal over the coming weeks. Discussions on a substantial four-year offer are said to be at a delicate stage.