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Olympic Rugby Sevens was a rollercoaster not helped by UK TV twist

By Rachael Burford
(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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From disappointment on day one to breath-taking scenes on days two and three. This Olympic Rugby Sevens tournament has been an emotional rollercoaster – and we still have more to come with the women’s tournament now set to start after Fiji successfully defended their men’s gold medal.

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On Tuesday morning, we in the UK got to experience a true high in rugby sevens history. The quarter-finals were broadcast live on the BBC, meaning fans and non-fans alike were able to watch some of the best rugby I have seen in a long time.

The GB vs USA match saw team GB down 21-0 in the first half, losing captain Tom Mitchell early on to injury. However, to everyone’s surprise, Team GB came back fighting and took the win, seeing them storm through to the semi-finals in a tournament where they eventually placed fourth.

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I may not agree with the referee’s final penalty decision, but there was no denying that the match showcased some of the most exciting, down to the wire rugby we have seen in a while. As for Argentina’s performance, they completely defied the odds with just six men on the pitch and beat South Africa, earning themselves a place in the semi-finals and going on to clinch the bronze medal. Crazy stuff!

Part of the magic of the Olympics is the fact that people get the opportunity to watch sports they haven’t seen before and usually wouldn’t get the chance to watch. You only have to look at the reaction to the taekwondo events to see this. It has been exhilarating and because it is accessible it has sparked an interest.

A few days ago, I was doing some work with the skateboarding on in the background. I had never watched skateboarding in my life, but I loved it! What is the common theme here? What is bringing this all together? It’s the fact that those sports are there and because they are easy to access I am able to enjoy them. Take The Hundred, for example. I have never watched cricket before, but I watched nearly three hours’ worth. Why? Because it was on, it was accessible and it was entertaining. Entertainment is a huge reason for people tuning into a sporting event.

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People having access to exciting new sports opens the doors up to fresh avenues of both players and supporters. Sevens rugby was aired on mainstream TV in the UK and already we are seeing the sport reaching a new market of people who are only now being introduced to the rugby world. It’s great to see!

However, we can’t ignore the issues that we faced on day one of the tournament. Fans woke up early Monday morning to learn that the matches were not being streamed on the BBC and were, rather disappointingly, hidden behind a paywall.

We have since seen just how fantastic our sport is when it is given the chance to be shown to a wide audience. I thought both the pre-match and post-match analysis was incredibly insightful on the BBC, giving the audience a real flavour for some great Olympic sevens.

I would be interested to learn exactly how these broadcasting decisions are made. I want to understand how broadcasters choose which sport gets the luxury of being shown and which don’t. What makes a sport worthy of being covered? Rugby sevens has more than proved itself, so why wasn’t it given a chance from day one?

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Usually, players put up a link on their social media accounts for friends, family and fans to log in and watch. However, I noticed players going to the Olympics weren’t doing that. Instead, they informed people that matches would be available on BBC or Eurosport.

If players knew matches were potentially hidden behind a paywall, I am sure they would have been shouting about it. This makes me question how much the players were involved in this decision and whether or not they actually knew about this.

For me, at the time of writing at least, it feels as though there is a lack of transparency for both players and fans surrounding the broadcasting platforms for these Olympic sevens.

Team GB are the best of the best and fans should be given the chance to celebrate their talent. The Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of sporting prowess and this feels miles away from that.

I have been in their shoes. I know how incredibly stressful and upsetting it is when those closest to you miss out on watching you play. These athletes have worked so hard to get to where they are and have each sacrificed a great deal. The least those in control of broadcasting these events could do is to tell people in advance where they can access the streaming service.

My issue isn’t necessarily with the paywall itself; I understand that plenty of sports thrive behind paywalls. It’s how it was – or wasn’t – communicated.

I understand the broadcasting rights are what they are, but what upsets me and what is a massive missed opportunity is the lack of transparency surrounding this. No one had the time to prepare themselves to purchase additional monthly subscription services because the need for such services was not communicated to anyone beforehand.

Let’s not forget, this isn’t just about the fans. It’s bigger than that. It’s about the new opportunities that Olympic exposure brings for sponsorship and investment in rugby sevens.

Sevens programmes around the world are seeing funding cuts, which makes me wonder what this will mean for the sport moving forward. I would be interested to know if the viewing figures from the games could impact the future funding of the sport? Could the numbers change anything?

Every single person I have spoken to about this, die-hard rugby fan or not, has had a difficult time signing up to view the matches. Not only are they behind a paywall with Eurosport, but to view the matches you must download the specific app, as the game was not deemed good enough to be broadcast on any one of the nine Eurosport channels.

All we want as fans is to be able to follow our sport, promote our sport and grow our sport. Olympic sevens is an exciting way to capture new audiences, opportunities and to promote growth.

The broadcasting deals we see in play this year will also be around at the next Olympics, meaning it is essential we learn from what has happened and put things into place to ensure our sport is given everything it needs to thrive moving forwards.

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Olympic Rugby Sevens was a rollercoaster not helped by UK TV twist

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