A whole new ball game

Richard Wray and Mark Sweney, in The Guardian, examine the background and reasons for the media rights scrum over the Rugby World Cup

The world of rugby is no stranger to bone-crunching showdowns but as the World Cup kicked off in Paris on Friday night, the action for the media industry was located off the pitch.

Instead of the William Webb Ellis Cup being at stake, this fight between newspapers and news-wires on one side and the event’s organisers – the International Rugby Board (IRB) – on the other, centred on the future of reporting as news goes digital. The outcome of this battle could have repercussions for years to come as newspapers grapple with the 24-hour online news agenda.

As both sides worked towards a compromise one thing was certain – as the lines blur between TV broadcasting and the online arms of traditional “old” media organisations, there will be more fights over who owns what right to which form of coverage at lucrative sporting events.

The rugby scrum pitted the IRB, the sport’s governing body, against most of the major newspapers – including news and picture agencies that distribute content to third parties – that wanted to use digital video and pictures from the event.

Initially the IRB had agreed that one photo per second could be transmitted by the news-wires during games with a maximum of 6,000 should there be extra time. That deal was roughly in line with agreements about coverage of the Olympic Games and the football World Cup. At the last minute, however, the IRB cut this down to just 40 photos per half and five for each half of extra time – a move which if nothing else suggests the IRB believes photo-journalists are clairvoyants – and the use of only three minutes of news conference or “locker room” video online during any match.

The IRB argued that the move was a just and fair one to make sure that the expensive TV rights secured by broadcasters were not undermined. The IRB’s head of media communications Greg Thomas was even reported as saying that sponsors “only care about the TV audience . . . they don’t care about newspaper coverage”.

In a statement on Friday the IRB said that the boycott “seems to be about some media organisations demanding access to material in the venue on match day and rights that belong to other media organisations such as rights-holding TV broadcasters”.

Media organisations cried foul. Such measures, they argued, were a threat to the freedom of the press and at the very least dismissive of the huge impact that newspapers – online and in print – have in raising the profile of an event, which in turn should please sponsors.

Support for the news agencies arrived on Friday with the likes of the the Guardian, The Times, The Sun and influential French national sport daily L’Equipe all agreeing not to use images from events in the run-up to the start of the tournament.

The IRB remained defiant last week, calling the boycott an “unjustifiable move”, adding that it would “not be swayed by unreasonable demands and the threat of non-attendance”.

But the long-term threat to the way that sporting events are covered by the non-TV news outlets was clear as IRB chief executive Mike Miller went so far as to suggest charging print organisations to cover the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

The battle for open reporting of rugby is by no means an isolated clash. Back in July a coalition of 30 media bodies formed a partnership to “defend the freedom of the press to report events without hindrance”, sensing which way coverage of sporting events is headed.

The move to control the release of digital content – be it text, audio or video via the internet or mobile phone – potentially sets a precedent that poses grave threats to the increasing digital ambitions of newspaper publishers.

The threat from the organisers of major sports events is simple. If media organisations do not toe the line with increased new media restrictions, then press accreditation for journalists at the event will be denied or revoked.

There has been a series of battles in the past 18 months with each sports governing body keeping a watchful eye on the outcome of every clash.

Last year the International Cricket Council issued terms and conditions for journalists covering the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean that threatened press accreditation if popular online over-by-over coverage was offered. In the last Ashes series in Australia, Cricket Australia extended its control of press conferences, effectively making them licensed environments and meaning that newspaper correspondents could not use audio-visual coverage on the internet.

Newspaper publishers News Limited and Fairfax clashed with Cricket Australia over threats to outlaw the use of Ashes content covered by the generally accepted “fair use” principle for copyrighted material – which for that event meant the use of two minutes of audio-visual coverage that could augment online sports reporting without paying a fee.

In April, Australian telecoms company Telstra, which has a Aus$90m (£38m) six-year rights agreement with the National Rugby League, launched a legal action to stop pay-TV channel Fox Sports using two minutes of highlights footage on its website and making it available on mobile phones.

A multimillion-dollar out-of-court settlement limited Fox Sports to showing 105 seconds of each match online and 90 seconds on mobile phones. The limits could be exceeded in cases of exceptional newsworthiness.

Last year’s football World Cup saw an 11th-hour deal between the governing body Fifa and the World Association of Newspapers, which the association described as merely “tolerable”. Although it included print and internet rights, mobile rights were excluded.

In the UK, meanwhile, where the Premier League has been at the forefront of rights exploitation it has separated live TV coverage from online and even mobile coverage, parcelling them out in the hope of making more cash.

One media observer argued that the running clashes are part of a “land grab”, as event organisers attempt to control the potentially lucrative rights to digital content distribution.

As traditional print advertising revenues inexorably decline, newspapers are turning to digital media for revenue. Hand in hand with this is an emerging model of the newspaper publisher morphing into a multimedia content provider.

Losing a rights scrum is to lose the game. Once a precedent has been set by one sporting body it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for publishers to regain lost digital territory. And as any good rugby player knows, possession is the key to success.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Guardian yesterday.
Click here to read an opinion column by Guardian Media Editor Emily Bell: The IRB’s stubborn stance did more harm than good

More on this story:
Read Keir Radnedge on the discussions here
Five agencies suspend Rugby World Cup coverage
IRB dares media to boycott Rugby World Cup
European Federation of Journalists condemn IRB over photography plans

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