Rugby Australia has severed its 25-year association with Foxtel and embarked on a new era by signing its broadcast rights over to the Nine Entertainment Co. and its streaming service Stan.
The two parties have signed an initial three-year agreement worth $[AU]100 million, with an option to extend for a further two years.
The deal was confirmed on Monday morning after more than 12 months of speculation, when negotiations were turned on their head by the coronavirus pandemic and in part forced the resignation of former RA chief Raelene Castle.
Castle had originally rejected Foxtel's offer to roll over its current deal for another five-year rights cycle in favour of a potential partnership with a free-to-air broadcaster, which, ironically, the code has now partly secured.
"This is a landmark broadcast arrangement for Rugby Australia that will usher in a new era for our game," RA interim chief executive Rob Clarke said. "It's a superior deal than our current domestic deal in both cash and contra, and of course, for the first time in Super Rugby history, free-to-air television exposure.
"Australian rugby is set to have a new home in January 2021, extending through to the end of 2023, for an initial three-year partnership with a two-year option to extend."
After a turbulent few months that very nearly saw the game crumble completely, Australian rugby can now set course for the future with its financial future secured.
Foxtel's offer was reported to be in the range of $40m per year, despite Clarke claiming the deal with Nine and Stan was superior to the code's current agreement with the subscription service broadcaster.
Clarke said he was confident that the new deal would allow RA to focus on player retention and the bright crop of youngsters who have already impressed under Wallabies coach Dave Rennie, but also invest more widely in grassroots development of the game.
Under the deal one Super Rugby AU game will be shown live each week on Saturday night on Nine and the 9Now app, while the other matches and those from Super Rugby Aotearoa will be shown on Stan Sport, which will come at an additional cost to existing subscribers of the streaming service and launch next year.
All Super Rugby AU finals matches will however be live on the Nine Network and 9Now app. Clarke also revealed RA was close to finalising the trans-Tasman crossover component of Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa, while a unified competition is likely to come to fruition in 2022.
However, contrary to previous reporting, Nine appears to be under no obligation to guarantee Wallabies Tests are shown live on linear television, with RA revealing Stan "will also exclusively stream every Wallaroos Test, The Rugby Championship, The Bledisloe Cup, as well as all inbound Tests for Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina with select games also broadcast free-to-air on Nine."
While it is expected the majority of Wallabies Tests will be shown on Nine, the lack of an iron-clad agreement leaves the broadcaster with the space to handle a potential clash between the NRL and rugby, particularly during the 13-man game's final series.
Still, Clarke insisted that the new would take rugby to more Australians than ever before.
"The fantasy has truly become a reality for the Australian rugby community, this is a landmark deal that includes everything in the showbag and it gives more Australians more access to more rugby than ever before," Clarke said.
"Australian rugby is transforming with an exciting future ahead and this is innovative partnership enables us to fast-track our growth from the grassroots up."
Nine chief executive Hugh Marks said he was thrilled to be partnering with Rugby Australia and paid tribute to the game's administrators for putting together a package that he is confident will be mutually beneficial for all three parties.
"For us to have the flexibility and optionality to be able to work with sports like Rugby Australia, to be able to use all of our assets and get the best possible outcome for sport and our business is exciting and it's an exciting development for us to be able to launch that with rugby today, and more to come as we go forward," Marks said.
"Rugby as a sport is in a great position, every time you look internationally there is a number of big events [on] of which the Rugby World Cup is always one. It is our international sport and I have every confidence with the administration that we've now seen, and we as Nine love to invest in administrators, these are the people that I think are so important in this current mix to take sports from where they are to where they can be in this much more complicated world.
"What we've seen through these discussions is an administration that is committed, that is willing and has a great vision for the future of rugby.
"It is one of Australia's true sports and it is, as I said, our international sport, and with the developments that are also going on with the women's game in rugby, I think gives us a great foundation for a long-term future, one of which we're very excited [about]."
For fans of Sydney's Shute Shield and Brisbane's Hospital Cup competitions, Clarke confirmed that at least four games from the regular season of each tournament would be screened live on Nine, so too one match per finals weekend, while the rest of the games would be broadcast live on Stan.
The National Rugby Championship, which was canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to have no place in the new broadcast agreement.
Stan chief executive Mike Sneesby said his service continued to grow and that was a clear advantage for rugby and its plans for the future.
"Stan's subscriber base is now over 2.2 million active subscribers and growing, with a reach far greater than that in terms of our overall account base," he said.
"We're very confident in what we'll bring to rugby fans around Australia."