Commentator fears for rugby league after Viaplay pull out of TV coverage

Championship rugby league suffered a blow this week with the news that the competition’s TV broadcaster Viaplay is to end its coverage of sport in the UK after suffering huge financial losses.

It’s a blow for the second tier who were boosted by the coverage, initially for Premier Sports, before the acquisition by Viaplay ahead of this season.

Viaplay confirmed last week that their new strategy will be aimed at cutting costs, with a focus on covering sport in the Nordics and Netherlands.

This leaves rugby league in an even more precarious position going into 2024, with no Super League TV deal yet to be agreed despite DAZN and TNT Sports rivalling Sky Sports for the broadcasting rights.

That means only the BBC holds any rights as it stands for rugby league TV coverage next season, with their Challenge Cup deal still having one year remaining.

Though time still remains for the sport to negotiate new TV deals, as we approach August there are some concerns among rugby league supporters and media, with former Sky Sports commentator Mike Stephenson at a loss to explain the situation.

“This will affect the lower clubs, losing the Viaplay deal. There’s no doubt about it,” said Stevo. “And at the same time, the IMG contract, as far as I’ve been reading it, is that you have to have a certain amount of fans come into the ground to watch the game before you have any chance of getting up into the big time.

“I’m afraid by doing all this, a lot of people perhaps will say, well, they can’t watch it on TV, so maybe they’ll put their hand in their pocket and go and watch it. But it doesn’t seem to have gone that way, does it?”

As for the Super League deal, Stephenson isn’t convinced that Super League approach of publicly stating they are not happy with Sky Sports latest offer is a smart move.

“I can’t believe that they have come out with a statement saying, I’m sorry, Sky, but that we’re disappointed with your offer.

“If you’re playing poker, you don’t show what you’ve got on your cards and Super League have done that they’ve said, ‘oh we’re not happy with the offer, we want to go higher’. When you’re playing poker, you keep schtum.

“If it does go to another, well, fair enough, but will that be enough money to keep our game alive? Let’s face it, look, TV revenue is the only reason why we can still keep going.”

While Super League is almost guaranteed to secure a TV deal one way or another, it remains unclear if this will now be part of a bundle deal that involves the Championship – something that was the case with previous Sky Sports agreements.

However, Sky’s reluctance to air any Championship games, despite holding the rights, led it changing hands – with the footage on Viaplay receiving praise from the rugby league fraternity, particularly presenter Emma Jones and commentator Mark Wilson.

Viaplay’s exit from rugby league is a blow, with the broadcaster explaining their decision to step back from the UK market via a statement from president and chief executive Jorgen Madsen Lindemann on their website last week.

It reads: “We are today announcing a new strategy and plan, which includes, but is not limited to, focusing on our core Nordic, Netherlands and Viaplay Select operations; implementing a new operational model; downsizing, partnering or exiting our other international markets; rightsizing and pricing our product offering in the Nordics; undertaking a major cost reduction programme; and conducting an immediate strategic review of the entire business to consider all options including content sublicensing, asset disposals, equity injections or the sale of the whole Group.

“The content investments that have been made are not all paying off, and are committed in the short and medium term. Furthermore, the pursuit of subscriber volume growth has been at the cost of value, especially when it comes to our partner agreements.

“The weakness in the advertising markets and currency exchange rates are additional factors that we must live with.

“The international expansion assumptions, including the timelines to profitability, have also been pushed materially into the future since the expansion started. We are moving quickly to address all of these challenges.

“Going forward, our focus will be on the Nordic markets with the new operating model in place, on the right content mix, on the development of our soon to be profitable Dutch operations, and on the sale of our content internationally through Viaplay Select.

“We are focusing our attention and resources on those markets where we can compete for the long term, and ensuring that our products are relevant, popular and generate healthy returns.”