Viewing figures released by the league show the impact of the new South African clubs, with the inclusion of the Stormers, Bulls, Lions and Sharks helping generate much improved numbers compared to the URC’s predecessor, the Guinness Pro14.
The audience for the entire 2021-22 season was 34.6 million across 7,000-plus hours of coverage on television and the URC’s own streaming service. It represents an increase of 169 per cent compared to the 2020-21 Pro14 and Rainbow Cup campaigns combined.
The cumulative average audience per game during the season was 230,000, up 109 per cent on 2020-21.
From a Scottish perspective, Edinburgh drew in more viewers than Glasgow over the season, reflective perhaps of the former’s better campaign.
A total of 1.25 million watched the URC Grand Final between Stormers and Bulls, higher than any previous Pro14 or Pro12 finals. Stormers beat Bulls in Cape Town and although it was an all-South African affair, 41 per cent of the audience came from outside of the country, with RTÉ’s live coverage in the Republic of Ireland accounting for 15 per cent.
Irish rugby fans can enjoy free URC coverage on RTÉ, the national broadcaster in the Republic. URC matches are also shown free to air in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, through BBC Wales, S4C, BBC Northern Ireland and Mediaset.
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There is no free coverage in Scotland or South Africa whose URC games come via the pay-TV stations Premier Sports and Supersport, respectively.
Viewing figures for matches on the subscriber stations were never going to beat those on the free channels but there were some healthy numbers, particularly for Scottish-South African clashes,in the early part of the season.
Glasgow Warriors’ win over the Emirates Lions in round three at Scotstoun in October was the second most watched game in Scotland, with 363,674 tuning in.
Next came Edinburgh’s win over the Bulls the following week (260,448), followed by Glasgow’s loss to Leinster in October (224,494) and Glasgow’s win over the Sharks (209,027).
Premier has been a loyal and robust supporter of the Scottish game since acquiring the rights four years ago and in John Barclay, Jim Hamilton and Chris Paterson the channel has an entertaining and knowledgeable stable of pundits.
Nevertheless, it is surprising that there is no serious interest from BBC Scotland or STV in showing some URC games, particularly the 1872 Cup derbies. Almost 25,000 were at Murrayfield to see Edinburgh’s win over Glasgow in May, an attendance that outstrips anything in Scottish league football outside of Celtic and Rangers home games.
There are three years left on the current URC TV deal but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it could be modified to accommodate some games on free to air in the way BT Sport allowed ITV to screen Gallagher Premiership matches.