Opinion: Rugby union faces its biggest test

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Sport, flaws and all, is very reflective of life.

Ups and downs, wins and losses, tragedies and triumphs.

Through it all – sport and life, that is – you need fans in your corner. The more the better.

Right now, rugby union in Australia is in a desperate battle to find out just who is in that corner with them, as they bunker down and try to find a TV deal beyond this year.

Their apparent fallout with Foxtel will create a chain reaction that is set to determine the short, medium and long term future of the code.

In a television landscape that is dramatically changing, the fact that Foxtel and rugby may sever ties is not as fatal as it could have been a few years ago. In fact, there is every chance that rugby union could be a pioneer of where sport is heading in Australia – with a streaming partner a very real possibility.

That is, of course, if those in charge of the game can handle this situation with the tact, professionalism and engagement that is required – and there are legitimate fears that may not happen, especially when you look at rugby’s decline in recent years and high profile PR disasters, such as the Israel Folau situation.

Australia has fallen out of love with rugby. It is a relationship less stable than any of the partnerships on ‘Married at First Sight’.

Super Rugby is a shadow of its former self, the Wallabies are less popular than Nick Kyrgios and club rugby maintains an elitist smell, with the demise of the Penrith Emus from the Shute Shield a few years ago a slap in the face for the code in western Sydney.

But where there is life, there’s hope. Just look at the National Basketball League – dead and buried not that long ago, it is enjoying a massive resurgence this year and is on the verge of re-capturing some of the public support it had during the glory days of the 1990s.

Glory days. They are hard to re-capture, especially when the competition is greater than ever. Not only is Super Rugby competing with the NRL and AFL, both of which set the benchmark for TV ratings and in the latter’s case crowds, it now has to fight the emergence of women’s competitions like the AFLW and Super Netball, plus the inclusion of the Big Bash League on the sporting calendar and of course non-sports entertainment which, particularly in your lounge room, is only growing in availability.

Blink or slip-up, and you face oblivion.

Rugby is desperate to get its slice of the pie back, and a TV deal is critical to achieving that.

But does Rugby Australia beg and pander to Foxtel and try to get back in the good books, or does it look to streaming as a way to reinvigorate?

A likely suitor is Optus, which has the rights to the English Premier League and after a shaky effort with the World Cup is slowly winning fans over to the idea of streaming live sporting content.

The pay television landscape in Australia is changing dramatically, with expensive Foxtel subscriptions now a tedious part of the family budget when you consider the much cheaper streaming options that exist.

Sport is Foxtel’s lifeblood. The more of it that it loses, the more excuses you give a customer to cut it off. Can Foxtel survive on its AFL, NRL and cricket deals alone, cutting loose second tier sports?

It should also be remembered that much of the rugby union audience Foxtel would have sits in medium to high income households, likely to be loyal customers as long as the sport they love is still on offer.

In a perfect world rugby would do a new deal with Fox and a free-to-air partner. It would surely prefer not to be the test case for whether a sport can survive without a traditional, major television partner. But it may have to be.

Problem is, a streaming partner would also likely have to pick up the production costs. That’s not cheap, and certainly a different situation entirely from that of the English Premier League – where Optus simply takes overseas match coverage with a touch of local flavour.

The other issue with a streaming partner is that until live sport streaming becomes mainstream, you’re really only preaching to the converted and losing your casual viewing audience.

I know I haven’t watched a single EPL match since Foxtel lost the rights, because as a ‘every now and then’ watcher, a subscription to Optus just doesn’t make sense.

This story has a long way to play out, but there is no doubt that it’s a potential do or die moment for a sport struggling to remain relevant in the Australian psyche in 2020.

For Raelene Castle, this too is a defining moment. With the jury very much out on her performance, the TV deal will prove the ultimate test.

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