NRL to launch discussions with ESPN to take advantage of global sport suspensions

“Everyone in the industry is trying to find live sport to show,” Verdu told the Herald from Connecticut on Sunday. “Everything is on the table right now. If you asked me a month ago if we’d be interested in [rugby league], it would have been an easy answer. But I can see people being far more receptive to the conversation.

LeBron James’ pursuit of another championship has been put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, with American sports broadcasters now looking for alternative content to fill the void.Credit:AP

“Right now, with so many sports cancelling or postponing their competitions, there’s a real lack of live events and we are looking into what’s next for us and what kind of content we can provide.”

With most major sporting events around the globe on hold – including the English Premier League, Formula 1 and both the ATP and WTA tennis tours – rugby league has the opportunity to fill a huge gap in the sporting market and at the same time sell itself to the world.

The NRL recently sold its international rights to Fox Sports with prospective broadcast arrangements funnelling through to the Fox UK and Fox US networks, as well as under the “Watch NRL” digital banner.

The NRL knows that any potential deal with ESPN would require permission from Foxtel chief executive Patrick Delany, such is the international rights deal in place.

Foxtel boss Patrick Delany.

Foxtel boss Patrick Delany.Credit:James Brickwood

However, given the game’s current predicament and the potential dire consequences around the code’s finances, the NRL is hopeful their broadcast partner will be understanding of the opportunity that now presents itself.

The international rights aren’t exactly lucrative to the game, but aren’t to be sneezed at either given they are believed to be worth more than the radio rights.

Under the current international rights deal, Fox is currently obliged to show three live NRL games per round in the US.

Given the time difference, eight delayed matches during more viewer-friendly timeslots could be far more appealing to the NRL, which for years has held ambitions of cracking into the North American market that now has the Toronto Wolfpack calling the continent home.

Sonny Bill Williams has put rugby league on the map in Canada after signing a two-year deal with Toronto Wolfpack.

Sonny Bill Williams has put rugby league on the map in Canada after signing a two-year deal with Toronto Wolfpack.Credit:Getty Images

Even if Foxtel knocks back the NRL in regards to the US, there are some markets without arrangements in place where ESPN has a strong presence. Discussions could also provide Fox with an opportunity to revisit its current rights, as it too deals with a shortage of live sports content.

“All the broadcasters are waiting to see how this evolves and unfortunately it’s evolving every day,” said Verdu, who is in Australia on business in October.

“We started with playing behind closed doors and then tournaments started getting cancelled. Now we’re waiting to hear next Tuesday if Euro 2020 could be cancelled. It’s difficult to see and forecast what is going to happen in near future. We’re all working towards every sport shutting down and making contingency plans around that.

“The other day I saw cricket highlights on one of the main news shows we have and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Everyone is trying to find live sport that is still going around. I’ve spoken to people from all over the world who are having the same problem. Fortunately for us, we have a lot of talk shows, documentaries and evergreen content we can use.”

Australian openers David Warner and Aaron Finch walk out to bat at an empty SCG last Friday against New Zealand.

Australian openers David Warner and Aaron Finch walk out to bat at an empty SCG last Friday against New Zealand. Credit:AAP

The other consideration the NRL has is not jeopardising the discussions it opened with major streaming services during a recent trip to the US undertaken by ARLC chairman Peter V’landys and NRL chief commercial officer Andrew Abdo.

While those discussions are in their infancy, the NRL must consider the magnitude of the opportunity that could present itself should it remain one of very few sporting codes still playing.

Verdu isn’t deterred by the prospect of providing ESPN viewers with something different to what they are used to.

“You have to consider that there will be a monetary issue and the opportunity for long future relationships that come into the conversations,” he said.


“This is my opinion and I could be wrong, but I think this could be something new for them [ESPN viewers].

“In no way can I compare it to this, but in some ways we saw with the XFL [off season American Football league] that even being in the first season our numbers were amazing. People have some appetite for new sports. You can’t compare rugby league to the XFL but it’s something that people might want to look into.”

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