Premier Sports are soon to embark on their second season as broadcasters of the Guinness PRO14 in the UK.
So how have they found their first year in the role, how happy are they with their viewing figures and what are the plans for the coming campaign?
Rugby correspondent Simon Thomas has secured a rare interview with the pay TV company’s chief executive Richard Sweeney to put all the key questions.
Q: First of all, can you outline the sequence of events that led to Premier Sports securing the PRO14 TV rights?
A: We went to PRO14 and said ‘Where are you going and what do you want to do in respect of broadcasting?’
We asked them whether they were happy to continue splitting the coverage between a number of broadcasters and that quite a number of their matches were not being covered.
They said they would like to have one broadcaster that backs them and that they could build on.
So we said we would come back to them and put forward some ideas.
Our proposal was for one broadcaster – ourselves – to produce and deliver all 152 games live. They didn’t really believe us.
But we spent months showing them how we could do it.
It was a major proposal and there’s obviously a rights figure at the end of the day. We did our calculations and were reasonably comfortable we could deliver this. We have been around a long time.
We had something like ten companies bid for the production, which is more than I ever seen, and we went for Sunset & Vine, who do the English Premiership. We knew and trusted them.
When PRO14 picked us and said ok, I don’t think we had any holidays from that day over the summer. There was a huge amount of work involved.
But once I picked Sunset & Vine as our production partner I felt pretty confident. We decided to go for the best in the market.
We signed a three year deal with PRO14 and it was a case of ‘away we go’.
Q: So how do you reflect on your first year as PRO14 broadcasters?
A: I’m very proud of what we did in our first season.
A lot of people didn’t believe we could do what we did.
We were called the Ryanair of production. It was that sort of ‘cheap and cheerful, you get what you get’ type of comment. It was very condescending.
The PRO14 deal was the time and opportunity for us to step up and become a player and for other broadcasters and organisations to take notice.
I am very happy with what we got on our subscription numbers. I know you are going to ask me for them, but I am not going to tell you!
We are a private company. We don’t tell anyone our figures, because why should I? We just don’t, the same as Amazon and other private organisations.
We are in for the long term and I think we have done extremely well.
Q: If someone doesn’t reveal their figures, people might think it’s because they are disappointed with them. Would you accept that’s a valid point?
A: Listen, I think it’s human nature. Everyone wants to know what’s the figures, what’s the figures?
They will say you are lying if you do give them a figure or they will say I told you so, they’re useless.
We are not going to get a pat on the back. It’s the nature of the world we live in, especially with social media.
I would love to stand up and say ‘Hey lads, this is our number, we are really happy and we want to get another 20 per cent next year’
But it’s something we have never done. It’s just a rule.
However many different ways you phrase the question, we are just not going to do it.
It’s pretty private. You can go to company’s house and work it out yourself if you want to.
Q: But are you satisfied with the subscription and viewing figures or not?
A: I am overall happy with the subscription figures.
As for viewing figures, there is no secret behind those.
On FreeSports, we are doing about 40,000 as an average per game there, which is not the big matches.
I am quite happy with that figure and I am expecting it to rise.
I would be really confident I can get up to 55,000-60,000. That’s about making more people aware of it, plus the fact that it will be HD this season.
With FreeSports, the idea is here’s the PRO14, have a look at it.
In terms of our main channels, we are behind a pay wall, so viewing figures mean nothing.
What we focus on is subscription. That’s where our income is.
Q: How do you reflect on how you are doing in Wales in terms of subscriptions?
A: Wales is a brand new market. They are not too sure about us and it does take time.
We have only been on board for a year.
It’s been a solid performance in Wales. We are happy with it.
They love their rugby. Moving forward, we are working with our marketing team, talking to the WRU and clubs.
Q: One of the main complaints from Welsh fans last season was about some of the coverage being Irish-centric. The midweek show is produced from Dublin and you had people saying it felt like you were watching an Irish programme.
A: I agree, for the first two or three weeks. Then they addressed that and changed it. They looked to have a Welsh pundit on there whenever possible.
We are looking at that again and how best to do it.
We felt a bit stung by that one, because we are sensitive about that side of it, being seen as Irish-centric.
I have a team in Wales, a team in Scotland and a team in Ulster for our live coverage. I feel we have got great talent providing that coverage.
We are so neutral. Our market is the UK. It just happens to be we are an Irish company.
Q: The midweek show is a joint production with Irish broadcasters Eir Sport and done in Dublin. Is there any thought of having a specific Premier Sports show?
A: Live is the focus for us. If you look at when our subscriptions come in, they come in around the live shows.
We have spent a significant sum on production, seven figures, and something like 95 per cent of that money goes into the live. That’s the really important part for us.
I don’t want to reduce any quality of what we have produced in the first year, I want to enhance it.
My experience behind a pay wall is people want a great live show and that’s what we are focused on.
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Q: Another issue is the highlights show on a Sunday, which is just match footage, rather than the kind of magazine show Welsh fans became used to with Scrum V. How do you view that show moving forward?
A: I am not too sure if the highlights programme on the Sunday works.
As I say, we are focused on our live broadcasts because that’s what we live and die by.
We focused so much on getting these 152 games out and making sure nothing was going to go wrong and delivering the promise we made, a promise which people didn’t believe we were going to fulfill.
Our unique selling point is that we do every game live.
I’m not too sure what we are going to do with the highlights this year.
I sometimes feel maybe the S4C or the BBC should be doing the highlights show. Everything’s a possibility.
Are we as a Premium channel gaining the benefit for the cost that’s involved? Are people a bit annoyed that it’s not what they are used to from a highlights programme, which is a magazine-style show?
Are we the right place to deliver something like that? Is it for somebody else to look after those highlights?
With the Scottish Cup, it works a little better, because BBC Scotland do the highlights show, a nice magazine show around it. It’s great, people love it, they get a feel of it and then they come to us to watch the live games and it actually works.
It’s not for us to say who should be doing the PRO14 highlights. That’s more for the PRO14.
Q: There’s obviously been a lot of debate about the PRO14 going onto pay TV and whether that’s having a negative impact on the profile of the competition and also the fact that people are now having to subscribe to another channel for their rugby. What are your thoughts on that?
A: People say it’s behind a pay wall, it’s a disgrace that I have to put my hand in my pocket.
But the majority of money goes back into the competition and enhances it.
I would have thought there was a significant increase in revenue for the teams, with us coming on board.
Look, everyone has a choice.
We are doing lots of deals with pubs and clubs at really good rates. So you can go to your local club, support them, have a couple of beers, and watch the match.
Our prices have gone up to £11.99 a month and £99 a year. But I still think it’s very good value for money.
At the end of the day, we are a private business and we have to try and make some sort of money out of it.
Q: Your pay channels are available through the Sky and Virgin platforms, plus your digital Premier Player, but not BT. What are the chances of that changing?
A: We would love to be on BT. I would do it tomorrow.
We have talked to them, but they just haven’t said come along, join our platform.
We haven’t got to there.
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Q: Quite a few people have raised the issue of your HD coverage. Where are we with that now?
A: All three of our channels will be HD for every single game this season.
That’s new from July. Last season, it was just Premier 1.
Our Premier Player is HD too. That’s a brilliant service which we have built from nothing and it’s great quality.
We went HD in July on FreeSports and our viewing figures trebled. It was basically the perception, which is totally true, as the costs for HD channels are five times the cost of a SD channel.
Q: Are you likely to bid for Wales’ autumn internationals when they become available next year?
A: We would love to do it. It all depends on the price.
They are really expensive, but we will give it a try.
We have got the Scotland games now and they have gone down really well. We are very happy with that.
There’s always an ambition to expand our portfolio. We wait and see what happens.
This content was originally published here.