Former News Corp boss John Hartigan: Folau saga has hurt rugby rights talks

One of the key figures in Foxtel’s longstanding relationship with rugby union in Australia says the Israel Folau saga has damaged the struggling code’s ability to strike a lucrative rights deal with broadcasters.

Former News Limited Australia boss John Hartigan told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age the long running Folau controversy has hurt rugby’s standing at a grassroots level “very much”, and there was “no question” it would make broadcasters cautious about backing the code.

Burden of defeat: The Wallabies reel after their heavy quarter-final loss to England.
Burden of defeat: The Wallabies reel after their heavy quarter-final loss to England.Credit:Getty Images

The Herald and Age revealed last month that Foxtel was threatening to sever a two decade relationship with rugby in Australia after it withdrew an offer to renew its rights to the Super Rugby competition and Wallabies tests.

Rugby Australia is expected to take the rights to an open tender in January with telco Optus expected to be serious contender.


“I have little doubt Optus is genuine [in their interest]. They have been looking for local content to support the EPL [English Premier League]” Mr Hartigan said. “That said Rugby wants to appeal to people beyond rusted on supporters so to have a free-to-air broadcaster is important.”

The rights talks will be critical for Rugby Australia and its chief executive Raelene Castle. This week, NSW Waratahs chairman Roger Davis warned the Australian Super Rugby sides will go broke unless Rugby Australia delivers an uplift on its current broadcast deal with Foxtel, worth $57 million a year.

Mr Hartigan served as chief executive  and later chairman of News Limited (now known as News Corp Australia) between 2000 to 2011.

During the period, a heyday period for the Wallabies, rugby blossomed in Australia.  The sport was also considered a lucrative driver of subscribers for Foxtel in affluent parts of Sydney, and was easy to commercialise given support from “elite” advertisers, Mr Hartigan said.

“Whether the brand has been so damaged over the last 12 months that this is no longer the case I am not so sure,” he said.

Foxtel, which is 65 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, has been facing its own financial challenges. The pay TV company told debt investors earlier this year it would cut spending on “non-marquee” sporting content.

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