The relationship between fans and the media has long been a complicated and tense affair. Fans frequently go after various broadcasters and pundits for any opinion which infringes on their personal agenda while the media, although bound by professionalism, often let on that sometimes they wish fans didn’t exist. However the relationship is one of mutual benefit, the fans need the media to broadcast and report on their games while the media need fans to pay to watch games. It could be argued that both parties despise each other, however, it cannot be argued that both parties need each other.
There is a theory in sport called the Golden Triangle theory which dictates that sport, the media and sponsors all work together in order to maximise each others financial gain. Sports clubs and players benefit from increased commercialism through wages and fame, the media benefit from commercialism through larger audiences, exposure and narratives while the sponsors benefit from commercialism through increased revenue. Each point of the triangle feeds into the next and relies on the one before it. This creates a system of checks of balances, if one point of the triangle steps out of line they can be punished by the others.
Seems perfect right? However there is one group missing, the group which makes the whole triangle run in the first place. The fans. In a modern world of increased commercialism and financially driven goals and decision making, the fans are often the ones who get left behind. Their hearts full of passion for their team, their pockets empty.
Which brings me to BT Sport, the broadcasters in possession of the rights to all Premiership rugby in England, a massive responsibility and honour which often i believe they take for granted. BT, at least recently, seem intent on exploiting the fan’s boundless, naïve love and passion for their teams by rinsing each fan base for every penny they are physically willing to give up. Why do i say this? It all started in the 2019/2020 season, the COVID season, when BT announced that due to the national lockdown which banned fans from attending live games, that they would show every single Premiership game live on a red button system for games which clashed. This was an honest and kind gesture which won the respect and gratitude of many fans such as myself, the lockdown was painfully hard on everyone so for passionate rugby fans to be consoled with almost constant rugby from Friday to Sunday was massive, bigger than any non-sports fan can ever comprehend. This continued through the 2020-21 season until the lockdowns ended and fans began to be allowed back into the stadiums. This is when BT announced that they would return to showing just three games a weekend for the 2021/22 season and that fans could no longer watch their teams live every week.
Their reason for this? They claim that they don’t want to reduce stadium attendances by showing every game live. I don’t need to tell you how preposterous and outlandish this excuse is as no honest fan has ever refused the chance of being in the ground because the same game was being shown on BT Sport. Furthermore, this excuse holds no weight to me as i don’t believe broadcasters at BT care at all about stadium attendances as this doesn’t affect their own business. The real reason is that BT don’t want the expense of broadcasting six games a weekend, but still want to collect the same monthly fee from their loyal subscribers. Don’t just take my word for this, the average attendance at Ashton Gate in the 2019/20 season was 17,916, in their first home game of 2021/22, live on BT Sport, there was 19,003 at Ashton Gate and two weeks later, live on BT again, 23, 438, an increase of 5,522 fans. Furthermore, Kingston Park has hosted two games so far this season, one live on BT Sport was attended by 6,114, the other, not on BT Sport, was attended by just 5,337.
But at least they shared out the live games equally so everyone gets to watch their team right? Well no actually, some teams are heavily favoured in terms of live games while others are essentially not shown meaning that whole fan bases will be paying to never watch their team play. Are you a Saracens fan? Good news, you can watch your team play eight times in the first 10 rounds. A Worcester fan? Hard luck, you can only watch your team once in the first 10 rounds.
But that’s not all. After the social media backlash from fans who were asking why they couldn’t watch their team play every week and were paying to watch other teams there was a rumour going round that BT Sport were thinking of introducing a Pay Per View system so fans could pay extra to watch their teams play. So after failing to provide the product they had already promised and that consumers had already subscribed to for the season they believed they could rectify this issue by asking fans to pay more for the product they were already paying for and not receiving. Which makes me wonder what the price would be if such a system were introduced. If each game cost £5 i would then be paying £45 a month just to watch my team play every week and for 2 other Premiership games a week. BT seem to believe that the pockets of rugby fans are bottom-less, or if they don’t, they simply don’t care. Every game of every weekend is recorded with broadcast quality commentary for the Premiership Rugby highlights packages, therefore, there is absolutely no reason why BT can’t show every game of every weekend except for their own financial gain. They have shown they have the means to introduce a red button style system because they did it for a season and a half already. At the very least they could introduce an online streaming service for the remaining games they don’t show on TV.
Lets get one thing straight. The rugby coverage on BT Sport is very good. The pundit team they have, led by the likes of Dallaglio, Kay, Flatman, Healey, Monye, Doyle and Elgan is superb every time and programmes such as Rugby Tonight consistently push the level of quality we have for rugby broadcasting. However, it seems the wider BT Sport corporation simply does not care about rugby. This is a problem because BT have bought the rights to exclusively show Premiership rugby in England until 2024 in a deal worth a rumoured £110 million. Meaning no one else can show the remaining games that BT refuse to show and i am left scouring Russian streaming platforms every weekend when i want to watch Sale. The other issue is that there is very little else on BT Sport which is worth the subscription, aside from the rights to 52 Premier League football games this season BT don’t show much else of interest for rugby fans. As i am writing this i have just checked the BT Sport TV guide and they are currently showing Spain v Austria in cricket, badminton and Eastleigh v Boreham Wood in non-league football.
The gravity and outrageousness of this whole situation is summed up by the fact that Stan Sport, an Australian streaming platform, is showing every Premiership game in Australia however in England we can only watch three games a weekend for paying more money a month. If we lived in Australia we would have better access to the rugby in our own national league.
This is also coming at a time when being a rugby fan is increasingly expensive. With the introduction of Amazon Prime as a rugby broadcaster of the Autumn Nations Cup, rugby fans in England now need to be subscribed to three different services to watch just their club and England, at a cost of over £60 + per month. And for that you can only watch three Premiership games a week and maybe not your own team. Say what you want about stereotypes of rugby fans, i don’t know anyone that can spare that kind of money every month.
The primary focus right now for everyone involved in rugby should be to attract and engage new and younger audiences, something we are currently failing to do, and making it harder and more expensive to watch games is the opposite way to do this. Young people have no income so cannot afford to be shelling the likes of £60 a month on a pastime especially if they are only new or casual fans. Essentially, broadcast and subscription services such as BT Sport can do whatever they like in exploiting fans and the fans have no checks or balances in order to stand up for their own rights, even though they are such an essential part of the function of sport and sports broadcasting. Broadcasters know they need us, but they also know we will never go ‘cold turkey’ and just abandon our love for the sport.
The hardest part about this for me is that the product is improving. The Premiership has become arguably the best league in the world and the large majority of games are absolutely stunning contests with constant entertainment. We just need more exposure. Now is not the time to be gatekeeping the sport and forcing the audience to watch a certain game when another game on at the same time might be far more entertaining.
I implore BT Sport to resolve this issue and do the right thing by making all the weekends games available to view, whether it be on TV or just simply streamed online.
Here is a selection of tweets from fans who share my sentiments.