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The Rugby Weekend will air live on FloRugby, meaning all three of Saturday’s matches – USA women against New Zealand, Ireland versus Italy, and the USA men against the Maori All Blacks – will only be viewable behind a paywall.
That’s not a new development. This year, only one Eagles test will air live on domestic linear television. It was USA versus Scotland in June. The other two summer tests were streamed live on Flo, just like all five Americas Rugby Championship matches in the spring were streamed live by The Rugby Channel.
In 2017, there was also just one test on live TV, as NBC Sports Network aired the Ireland match. The rest were streamed live on The Rugby Channel. There have been some re-airs on linear, but at the end of 2018, just two of the USA’s last 23 tests will have aired live on domestic television.
What is new is the company Eagle fans must pay to watch their team. With The Rugby Channel’s parent company, Rugby International Marketing, on the verge of collapse and Flo its only suitor, Flo wielded all the leverage in the deal struck with RIM’s outgoing CEO David Sternberg and board chair Chad Keck at the USA Sevens in March.
The particulars of the seven-year deal haven’t been made public, but we know it allows USA Rugby to take up to four tests a year to live television. Some other pre-existing or separate deals, like that with ESPN in place for the Americas Rugby Championship or NBC for World Cups, may well put the national team on TV over the next seven years, too. Otherwise, just four tests a year, through 2025, can be taken to live television.
With just one of those slots used so far this year, three of the four November bouts could have been shown live on national television had USA Rugby negotiated to do so. The national governing body had been in talks with broadcasters for The Rugby Weekend, but no deal was made.
The prevailing thought for decades has been that, for rugby to grow in America, it must be on national television as much as possible. Specifically, our senior national teams need to be pushed to the forefront, as they are the most marketable assets we have.
Collectively, millions of dollars have been thrown at airtime. For USA Rugby, that’s usually meant test matches, often trying to sell sponsorship against broadcast costs, and there was the ESPNU college game of the week from the National Guard sponsorship.
Independent efforts have netted airtime, too, like USA Sevens, the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship, Varsity Cup, Super League, D1A, Major League Rugby and the Gallagher Premiership. Until very recently, those deals have usually seen rugby paying broadcasters for time. It’s not always that black and white. Ad inventory, production costs, etc. can be shared, and deals can be structured differently.
But in mainstream sports television, the equation usually works the other way around, with the broadcaster paying big bucks for the right to air something. That’s not been the case in American rugby ever, and only very recently has anyone been paid even a relatively modest rights fee for rugby content.
In reality, rugby has always been behind a paywall in America. NBCSN, CBSN and every ESPN network, homes for nearly all of the Eagles’ live television matches in recent memory, are all behind a paywall in the form of a cable or satellite subscription.
The only television in front of a paywall is that which you can pull from nothing other than an antenna – over-the-air and network television. Rugby in America has very rarely ever been showcased on that exclusive platform. The barrier to entry is too high.
So in trading CBSN or NBCSN for Flo, USA Rugby isn’t giving up free broadcast in exchange for pay-per-view, it’s swapping one very large, expensive paywall for another smaller, more fiscally responsible one.
Paywalls aren’t the problem. They’re the reality. Every day, there are fewer people paying for cable and satellite television and more consuming the bulk of their video online. That trend isn’t reversing. In fact, it’s accelerating faster than industry experts prognosticated.
Instead of expending energy fighting for traditional TV time, the equivalent of bidding for shelf space at Blockbuster during the advent of Netflix, American rugby would be better served to best navigate the changing tide.
That said, not all paywalls are created equal. Production quality, accessibility, reliability and cost are differentiators. The other paywall content providers in the rugby space are NBC Gold and ESPN+. Flo is markedly more expensive than both with lower production quality, less reliable streams and poorer accessibility to archived content. However, Flo carries more rugby.
With the NBC package, you just get their rugby content. With the ESPN package, you get access to everything ESPN+ has to offer, including upwards of 10,000 live events a year and much of the original content from ESPN’s television networks. With the Flo package, you get everything under the FloSports umbrella, which includes content from 24 different sites, most of which are sport-specific.
Flo’s reach is unknown, as the company doesn’t disclose its subscriber numbers. Reportedly, Flo had 100,000 paid subscribers in the summer of 2016, and it’s boasted a growth rate of 20,000-30,000 new subscribers a month since, potentially landing the current total at somewhere around 900,000. ESPN+ launched in April and surpassed 1 million paid subscribers in September.
While Flo’s reach is likely less than that of ESPN+, and both of theirs is lesser than that of traditional television stations, it’s nothing to scoff at. Access to a million or so potential new rugby fans is a big deal for USA Rugby, and that number’s only going up. Sternberg claims The Rugby Channel peaked with 11,000 paid subscribers, though it was actually more like 7,000, all of whom were presumably already rugby enthusiasts.
Adding value to the Flo partnership, though, is the way Flo promotes and markets its content. While niche sports like rugby have often paid for lackluster attention from the big media companies, Flo’s made its name by being a more hands-on partner to those same sports.
Flo’s flagship sites are dedicated to track and wrestling. The company was founded by the Floreani brothers, who wrestled and ran in college. Some of Flo’s biggest success stories have come in those sports, like that of Oklahoma State and USA Wrestling.
In 2015, OSU partnered with FloWrestling to stream all its wrestling events. Since, attendance for Cowboy wrestling has increased by 68 percent. In 2013, Flo struck an exclusive streaming deal with USA Wrestling. Since, the national governing body reports an 87-percent increase in site traffic.
The moral of the story is, rugby in America isn’t popular or rich enough to stand in front of a paywall, so it has two options – go behind the larger, more expensive TV paywall for a larger reach, or go behind the smaller, cheaper online paywall with less of a reach.
Because of RIM’s failures, that choice was partially taken away from USA Rugby. Only one company stepped up to buy The Rugby Channel, and it was one with a cheaper online paywall and a smaller reach. As a consequence, USA Rugby only gets to take four tests a year to traditional TV, and it hasn’t even done that, potentially because it can’t afford to.
Right now, Flo is the home USA Rugby can afford. It may not be that big network TV dream home, but it’s plenty fine with room to grow.