Rugby Union : Celts' TV fears grow

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The Independent Online
Leading rugby figures in Wales, Scotland and Ireland are deeply concerned that satellite television's increasing control of broadcasting rights will undermine the sport's attempt to establish itself as a genuine worldwide attraction. The Celts, who are awaiting confirmation from BSkyB that a proposed multi-million pound deal has fallen through, are hoping to announce alternative agreements with terrestrial companies within the next few days.

Their problem is that the income guaranteed under those agreements is unlikely to approach the figures originally discussed with Rupert Murdoch's men. England, meanwhile, are sitting pretty, having settled an pounds 87.5m deal with Sky as well as a pounds 20m revised jersey contract with Nike.

Yesterday, both the Welsh and Scottish unions insisted lucrative terrestrial deals were near finalisation. Charlie Bisset, the Scottish Rugby Union negotiator, said the Scots' agreement was satisfactory in terms of television exposure and income, while Vernon Pugh, the Welsh Rugby Union chairman, waxed lyrical about his country's deal, thought to be with BBC Wales.

However, it now seems certain that England's position as the richest, most powerful and most commercially attractive rugby nation will be reinforced, leaving the Celts as poor neighbours. A similar scenario has occurred south of the equator, where Murdoch's buy-up of New Zealand, South African and Australian rugby effectively ostracised many of the smaller countries - Western Samoa, Fiji, Canada and Argentina - who were seen by many as essential components of the game's international fabric.

BSkyB have yet to give their side of the story, but it is common knowledge that senior company negotiators were less than amused by the rebellion against England's decision to agree a unilateral Five Nations broadcasting deal. Pugh is against any move to a satellite monopoly, claiming rugby needs the widest exposure as much as a bank account full of Murdoch money.

Negotiations over the rights to next season's expanded Heineken European Cup are likely to prove fractious and it is still not clear which terrestrial company, if any, will team up with Sky to broadcast England international matches when the current Five Nations' Championship comes to an end.