Sky, NZR reach breakthrough Super Rugby Aotearoa global RugbyPass streaming deal

Sky TV and NZ Rugby have inked a deal for Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 matches to stream in more than 100 countries via Sky’s RugbyPass service – including top-tier rugby nations the UK, Ireland and France for the first time.

Weekly passes, featuring two live games every weekend, plus highlights and condensed games, will be available at US$9.99 ($12.75), €7.99 or £6.99, whilst fans can get a season-long pass for US49.99, €39.99 or £34.99.

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RugbyPass’ service will be geo-blocked to New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Islands and Spain, where broadcast agreements are in place.

The deal represents Sky’s first chance to monetise RugbyPass, the early-stage company it bought in late 2019 in a deal worth up to US$40m, including a US$10m earnout clause. At the time, Martin saw a potential paying audience in the single-digit millions, although he conceded to this reporter that premium subs at the time of the sale were below 20,000, if growing.

RugbyPass was formed by ad-man Tim Martin, bankrolled by rich-lister Peter Cooper and, from 2016, a multi-million dollar investment from US media giant Discovery (which would later buy MediaWorks TV). The pair had formerly been the founders of FanPass, which won English Premier League rights from Sky earlier in the decade, then partnered with Spark.

RugbyPass was initially aimed at territories like China, Eastern Europe, the Philippines and parts of Asia-Pacific – where rugby had a niche following among locals, or housed a rugby-mad ex-pat community, but had little or no coverage of the sport.

New owner Sky had barely got behind the wheel when Covid hit. Last year, Sky wrote-down RugbyPass’s carrying value from $38.4m to $10.9m.

There was no word on paid sub numbers (although it did say free content got three million unique views a month). The global service had incurred some $14.5m in accumulated losses with “no material synergy benefits to date.”

However, at the same time, Sky said partnering with NZ Rugby and Saanzar to bring Super Rugby Aotearoa to a global audience, and build RugbyPass overall, was one of its top four goals for 2021.

With the deal announced today, it is in with a shot.

But while it’s a coup for Sky to win UK rights with the new RugbyPass deal, the Herald understands from a veteran rugby insider that Sky UK, BT Sport and Amazon put in relatively low bids.

“When Sky UK won the last rights in 2015 they paid $38m a year,” the insider said. “I presume it’s nowhere near as high as that this time but that gives RugbyPass a real chance to grow and it is a genuine global play by Sky NZ.”

A Sky spokeswoman told the Herald, “The specific terms are confidential, but RugbyPass is working in partnership with NZR to deliver Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa to global rugby fans in this unique season. RugbyPass is the service provider for NZR – that is, not buying the rights in a traditional way but operating as NZR’s delivery platform to global fans.”

While exact terms are under wraps, the deal is a feather in Sky’s cap at a time when some analysts thought NZ Rugby would be looking to potential new investor Silver Lake to exercise its global connections to boost NZ rugby’s global presence, at the expense of Rugby Pass.

RugbyPass’s new SuperRugby Aotearoa service will launch this Friday.

RugbyPass head Neil Martin (no relation to the now-departed Tim Martin), said, “We are tremendously excited to be able to bring Super Rugby Aotearoa to the RugbyPass platform for the millions of fans across the globe. RugbyPass is already the biggest rugby destination in the world, and this new partnership with NZR further demonstrates our commitment to the sort and the major competitions and content that fans desire.”

NZ Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said,”The hype around Super Rugby Aotearoa globally last year was incredible as New Zealand was fortunate enough to be one of the first countries in the world to enjoy live sport with crowds.

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“The rugby was fantastic and the fans loved it. We are set for another phenomenal year – and to be doing something different by partnering with RugbyPass to deliver our competition to fans worldwide is really exciting”

There are still a couple of missing pieces to the puzzle, however.

Sky and NZR have yet to reveal if RugbyPass will be able to offer All Blacks 2021 games around the globe.

And with terms undisclosed, it’s not known how the new RugbyPass Super Rugby Aotearoa deal will factor into Sky’s ongoing clawback some of the cost of its new five-year broadcast deal, which begins with the 2021 season, given the downsized rugby calendar.

Jarden head of research Arie Dekker says the Sky-NZR relief talks are “delicate” and that it’s hard to give a verdict on Sky’s 2021 outlook until they reach a full conclusion.

As things stand, Dekker yesterday maintained his “under-weight” rating on Sky, with a 12-month target price of 18c also unchanged after Sky’s interim earnings report earlier this week.

Sky shares closed yesterday at 17.2c. The stock is down 46 per cent over the past 12 months.

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