BT aim to replace Heineken Cup with dazzling new format
Whatever course the great rugby broadcasting row takes over the coming weeks and months – still not completely sure of what the hell has happened and why, the sport's major governing bodies were maintaining a deathly silence yesterday – there is no doubting its seriousness.
England's leading clubs, awash with new money from the communications giant BT, will drive the hardest of bargains in reshaping cross-border competition when the guillotine descends on the current flagship tournament, the Heineken Cup, in a little under two years' time.
Yesterday, the BT Vision chairman Marc Watson, the man behind the £152m deal with the English Premiership teams that has, in a single blow, shattered club rugby's status quo, spoke in crystal-clear terms about his plans for the future. "We are looking to set up, or at least help set up, a dazzling new European tournament with a fantastic new format – and with, we hope, all the best clubs," he said. "And we've secured, from the Premiership, the rights to that for the United Kingdom. The tournament will be the successor to the Heineken Cup."
Watson added that when the current Heineken accord expires in 2014, "that will be the end of it". He went on to explain that his company "saw in rugby an opportunity to own a sport exclusively, certainly at club level, and the rights we've bought give us an opportunity to do that". By talking in such bullish and forthright terms, he threw down enough gauntlets – to the current Heineken Cup administrators, to a majority of the national unions associated with the competition, and not least to BSkyB, the other major players in rugby broadcasting – to equip an entire medieval army.
A few hours after news of the Premiership-BT deal broke on Wednesday, the Heineken Cup's organising body announced a new television deal of their own: a four-year contractual extension with BSkyB, their existing partners. In so doing, they accused the Premiership clubs of selling cross-border rights to BT that were not theirs in the first place. In response, the English clubs pointed out that as there will not be a Heineken Cup after 2014 – certainly not in its present form, under its present governance – it was more the case of BSkyB being sold something that would no longer exist.
Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of the elite English teams' umbrella organisation Premiership Rugby, also rubbished claims that he and his organisation had acted outside International Rugby Board regulations by negotiating a broadcasting deal in the first place. "Following our agreement with the Rugby Football Union, dated 16 October 2007, Premiership Rugby has specific consent to control the broadcast rights to club rugby," McCafferty said, sounding very sure of his facts.
The Heineken Cup board, incorporating two delegates from each of the six countries with teams in the competition, meets in Dublin next week and, according to David Young, the director of rugby at two-time European champions Wasps, there is at least the possibility of a compromise.
"It would be a big blow if the competition wasn't there, because every player wants to be successful in it," said the Welshman. "I am sure it will ultimately be sorted out. Over the years we've always had these spats, but things always get sorted for the better."
Young was no doubt thinking of the 1999 boycott staged by the English clubs, backed by Cardiff and Swansea – a crisis prompted, as this latest one has been, by intense dissatisfaction over format and commercial strategy. But this latest chapter in an age-old row could well be the last. Certainly, it is far more threatening to the future of Europe's most popular club tournament than the single-season stand-off of 13 years ago, not least because the powerful, cash-rich French clubs are also disenchanted with current arrangements and have threatened to walk away.
Nigel Wray, the chairman of Saracens and one of the men at the heart of the '99 rumpus, was certainly of this view yesterday. "The structure is clearly wrong," he told ESPN. "There is no doubt that the English and French clubs contribute by miles the biggest part of the revenue and we don't get our just reward. That must be put right. The terms have to change.
"I don't blame anybody in particular. If I was Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy – the majority who out-vote England and France – I'd want to keep the situation as it is. We have to knock each other out in our country to qualify, while their guys just stroll in. It's perfectly normal for them to see it their way, but from our point of view it doesn't make sense.
"It's obvious that the Heineken Cup is a tremendous tournament, but the terms need to be tweaked. And the only way it is going to change is by us making a noise. This doesn't mean we don't want teams from the other four nations involved – of course we do. We want a great European Cup. But not on these terms."