Ratings in free fall: The truth behind Shute Shield TV rights deal

Shute Shield television ratings crashed 67 per cent over the five years Club Rugby TV and Seven held the broadcast rights to rugby's heartland club competition, the Herald can reveal.

On the same day Rugby Australia’s $3.7 million deal to buy back Sydney's club rugby rights was hailed as a "game changer" by club figures, it emerged how poorly the competition was rating on Seven's digital channel 7TWO, its home since the ABC dropped it in 2014.

Warringah Rats fans at the Shute Shield grand final at Bankwest Stadium last August.Credit:Brook Mitchell

Last season attracted an average audience of 13,000 people on the free-to-air network's digital channel, down from 40,000 in the final year of the ABC's long-running broadcast.

According to figures given to the Herald and sourced from OzTAM, the competition's television audience dropped year on year over its five years on Seven, apart from a small spike in 2016 – the year Northern Suburbs broke a 41-year hoodoo to claim the title.

It dropped to an average of 28,000 viewers in 2015, rose to 29,000 the next year, fell to 19,000 in 2017, 16,000 in 2018 and dropped to 13,000 last season. For the past two seasons, Foxtel has broadcast a replay of the match of the round.

The figures do not account for replays, Foxtel's audience or viewers on Seven's online service, 7Plus.

Club Rugby TV co-owner Nick Fordham attributed the decline to accessibility issues and also highlighted that, during the same period, crowd attendances grew. Fordham and business partner John Murray said attendees were refused entry at the Shute Shield grand finals in 2017 and 2018, due to capacity. In those years, the finals had crowds of almost 16,000. In 2015, Fordham and Murray said 5000 attended the grand final.

Raelene Castle and Rugby Australia have been talking tough about negotiations with broadcaster Fox Sports.Credit:Getty

The deal, which was approved unanimously by the 11 Sydney Premier clubs, the SRU board and the NSW board, is made up of a $1.45 million cash payment to the SRU and NSWRU over the next five years; a $750,000 guaranteed advertising and marketing spend over five years for the promotion of the Shute Shield and rugby participation across NSW, and a $1.5 million bill to pay out the SRU's existing obligations to Seven and Club Rugby TV.

Neither RA nor Club Rugby TV would confirm whether the deal involved a "blue sky" payment to Fordham and Murray on top of the contractual obligations.

Parsons paid tribute to all parties. "This provides the start of a new era in Australia with complete alignment of all versions of our game and we couldn't have done that without the help of Nick Fordham and John Murray," he said.

"We entered these negotiations in what can be called very difficult times – no doubt RA was under pressure around the media position of rugby in this country – but we were able to work our way through that and, by working with RA and NSW Rugby, we've landed on a position that sets a platform to allow premier rugby to grow the game.

"We still await the outcome of the [broader rugby rights tender] and which platform we will be on, but RA have de-risked the process for us and we are very grateful for that."

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