The landscape of professional club rugby across Europe is likely to change dramatically as a result of a highly lucrative deal between England's leading teams and the telecoms giant BT – the latest big-money player in the sports broadcasting market, ambitious enough to have splashed out £1bn on rights over the last three months. The contract, worth up to £152m to the Premiership teams over four years, threatens to transform the politics of the game in the northern hemisphere, as well as its economics.
Premier Rugby, the umbrella organisation representing the 12 top-flight sides in the country, announced yesterday that BT had bought exclusive rights to league matches, starting next season. Negotiations were also held with the current broadcasters, BSkyB and ESPN, who have been splitting live broadcasts between them, but they either would not or could not match the BT bid. For BSkyB, the broadcasters who helped drive the sport towards professionalism in the mid-1990s and have been at the heart of the action ever since, it appeared to be a particularly heavy defeat.
As part of the new deal, BT will also have exclusive rights to any European matches involving Premiership clubs – and this is where the controversy begins. Premier Rugby, at serious loggerheads with Heineken Cup administrators over both the format and the commercial status of the world's leading club tournament, have, together with the French clubs, threatened to walk away from the competition in 2014 unless significant changes are agreed. This new money will strengthen their position when negotiations begin in earnest next week.
According to the Premiership clubs, the new money ring-fenced for European broadcasts will go into the common pot if agreement is reached, thereby increasing the financial take for all those involved. But by selling their European rights unilaterally, the English are effectively saying to the three Celtic nations and the Italians: "You can either see things our way, or you can do without our money."
The immediate response was very sharp indeed. Within hours, Heineken Cup officials upped the political ante by announcing that they had reached a new exclusive agreement with their existing broadcasters, BSkyB, until the end of the 2017-18 European campaign. Two rival TV companies: two exclusive deals. Something will have to give.