Week in Review

Live NPC matches may be axed in TV deal

New Zealand Rugby will ask Sky TV to consider a domestic competition where some games aren’t shown live.

The radical shift is being driven by a survey of 2500 fans around the shape of the Mitre 10 Cup as NZR prepares to go the broadcast market after the existing deals expires this year.

Sky is in the box seat but they are no longer the only option, with Spark keen to increase its sports coverage.

NZR’s head of participation and development, Steve Lancaster, told me on Radio Sport that the survey showed fans like the Mitre Cup, its format and the fact it’s a national competition.

“But it doesn’t take a lot to figure out that crowds have declined at matches over recent years.”

One reason for that is Sky’s saturation coverage - something NZR now wants to reconsider.

“One thing we are considering and are putting to them (the fans surveyed) is ‘are the times of days and days of the week this competition is played something that is impacting your decision as to whether you want to go along and watch’?

“What we are hearing is more afternoon games would be positive and more games on the weekend.

“If you put more games on the weekend you will have two games at the same time potentially, which is a consideration for the broadcaster who likes to broadcast every game live.

“But, equally, if every game is not broadcast live there might be more incentive for people to get along and watch it themselves.”

This potential shift in the broadcast agreement comes at a time when Lancaster is considering a raft of potential innovations in an effort to rejuvenate the game for fans and players.

While society has changed markedly in the past two decades, rugby has been slow to react, he said.

The game remains largely a Saturday sport with 15-a-side, tackle, still the only option for adults.

“We know that people want to play sport when it suits them, with whom it suits them and in a format that suits them, so offering only one format that takes half a year and half of a weekend isn’t working for people now.

“We have to give people more options. The rigid approach that if you want to play our sport there is only one day of the week doesn’t resonate with people any more.”

Lancaster says sevens continues to grow in popularity and 10-a-side rugby was another option. The length of the game itself and the season would also be reviewed.

"For some people committing from April through to August is more than they are willing to do, so we need to give them the option to engage in shorter competition formats as well.”

Tradition has been a handbrake on the sport and now “anything is on the table” as the game’s head office looks at how to retain and attract fans and players alike.

Other sports like indoor cricket, soccer and netball have shown that many people want to play after work, in work teams and socially.

“The big shift in sport is to move from what the sport wants to what the participant or consumer wants,” Lancaster said. "So if there is demand for business house competitions, then we should offer that.”

These competitions would use rugby’s existing infrastructure - clubs - which would in turn breathe life back into some of those ailing relics of a different era.

Offering non-contact options was also important as concerns around concussion rose, with rippa rugby and quick rip rugby (played by teenagers) popular.

“The shape of the game has changed. It’s much more confrontational now, the collisions are harder at the senior level, so we are looking at the laws of the game.”

Despite offering his wide-ranging thoughts on how rugby could change, Lancaster said it had to be remembered the game was still hugely popular - and becoming more so for girls and women.

“We had 157,000 registered players last year and I think we will be thereabouts this year and that’s without introducing some of these adaptations that might enable those numbers to grow.

“It’s not all doom and gloom. We think there is a massive opportunity for the game to continue to grow and continue to be our national sport.”

A SKY TV spokesperson said the broadcaster was working closely with NZR in its planning for the upcoming and future Mitre 10 Cup competitions.

"We know that NZR are doing surveys to get feedback from rugby fans in respect to the Mitre 10 Cup. We will be meeting with NZR soon to determine what changes/if any should be considered," the spokesperson said.

The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.

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