Sky Sports has signed a four-year deal to broadcast matches from the RaboDirect Pro12 for the first time, beginning in the 2014/15 season.
Featuring the top club sides from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy, including Europe’s current number one ranked side Leinster, defending champions Ospreys and current leaders Ulster, the new non-exclusive deal will reportedly signal a boost of around 50% on existing Pro12 TV rights revenues.
Regional Pro12 broadcasters such as BBC Wales, BBC NI, BBC Alba and S4C are expected to continue screening live matches alongside Sky’s UK-wide coverage from 2014/15, ensuring the continuation of free-to-air coverage for viewers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Under the terms of the new deal, Sky will show 30 live matches on Saturdays, plus the semi-finals and the final, with the latter in conjunction with the territorial broadcaster where those games take place.
The deal will mean Pro12 games being broadcast all across the UK for the first time, and ensures that 125 of the 135 games in the 2014/15 competition will be shown live on television.
Sky’s deal is likely to work alongside existing regional free-to-air broadcast contracts for the Pro12, with the league currently being shown on BBC Alba in Scotland, BBC Northern Ireland, BBC Wales and S4C, as well as RTE and TG4 in Ireland.
The move comes after Sky Sports lost the rights to broadcast the Aviva Premiership matches from next season to BT Vision and underlines the growing strength of the Pro12 both commercially and in terms of audience figures.
The competition is expecting a total of 1.2 million spectators this season, an increase of 100,000 from last season, while viewing figures are also up by around 25 per cent.
Barney Francis, managing director of Sky Sports, said: “We know European rugby is hugely popular with our viewers and this deal provides for even more fantastic action.
“From next year, the RaboDirect PRO12 will complement our Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cup coverage and provide viewers with an unrivalled diet of rugby union.
“Sky Sports remains the home of televised rugby union, offering an unprecedented schedule from the international, European and domestic game.
“Our coverage is innovative and our expert analysis respected. This agreement is even more good news for rugby fans with Sky Sports.”
Ireland, Leinster and British & Irish Lions star Brian O’Driscoll told skysports.com: “The Rabo has really upped its game massively in the last two seasons.
“For a number of years before any sponsors came along, people probably weren’t giving as much thought to it as they were to European competitions, but now it’s a pretty keenly contested competition.
“I think you’ll get to see really good rugby and it’s exciting to have Sky onboard, because I think the positivity that you tend to get from the analysis of games coming there will only enhance the product that is the Rabo and encourage more people to watch it.”
With all but 10 games set to broadcast on TV the season after next, Pro12 chief executive John Feehan said: “We are delighted to welcome Sky Sports to the RaboDirect Pro12 family.
“Our competition is growing from strength to strength and we feel this partnership with Sky Sports will allow us to extend the reach of the RaboDirect Pro12 in the UK and Ireland.”
The new Sky TV deal reportedly marks a 50% increase on the existing money on offer for the 12 teams in the Pro12.
It will provide a welcome boost to the Welsh regions who are struggling to keep their best players amid the huge offers available from France’s Top 14 sides and the Aviva Premiership.
The BBC says it is still hopeful it will be able to show Pro12 games after its current contract with the league expires at the end of the 2013/14 season.
Negotiations are ongoing between the Pro12 and the BBC over the matter of continuing live free-to-air coverage beyond 2014.
BBC Wales, BBC Northern Ireland and BBC Alba had been made aware that the competition wanted both free-to-air and pay-TV broadcast partners, they said in a joint statement.
“We were aware that Sky was going to make an announcement today but are not in a position to do so ourselves as negotiations with Celtic Rugby are ongoing,” said the BBC statement.
“However, we remain hopeful that a positive outcome can be reached soon, one which will allow us to continue to bring the Pro12 competition to the largest possible audience.”
For Sky, it will boost their weekly rugby portfolio after they lost the rights to screen Aviva Premiership games to BT Sport.
This announcement follows on from a series of major rugby union rights deals for Sky Sports, including the exclusive live rights to screen the British & Irish Lions tour 2013 and four-year deals to show Ireland, France and Italy Autumn Internationals from 2014.
Sky signed a long term European rugby deal with the ERC last autumn, though they are in the midst of a row surrounding the broadcasting future of the Heineken Cup after Premier Rugby awarded rights to European matches featuring English teams to BT Sport.
The RaboDirect Pro12 will complement the existing schedule of live European rugby union on Sky Sports featuring the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup, plus the domestic offering with the RFU Championship and LV=Cup.
Added to that is a strong portfolio of international rugby with the British & Irish Lions tour 2013, QBE Internationals, England women’s matches, IRB Sevens World Series, Super Rugby and The Rugby Championship.
The Sky Sports rugby union team includes some of the biggest names in the sport with over 550 caps between them.
Coverage throughout the season is presented by Alex Payne and James Gemmell, with commentary from Stuart Barnes, Miles Harrison, Mark Robson and Johnnie Hammond.
Expert analysis comes from Will Greenwood, Dewi Morris, Paul Wallace, Ieuan Evans, Scott Quinnell, Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Lynagh and Scott Hastings.