Barney Francis, the managing director of Sky Sports, is in the unusual position of hoping that a global rugby tournament televised by a rival company will be a rip-roaring success.

As with every Rugby World Cup (RWC) except the first in 1987, free-to-air ITV will be broadcasting the 2015 competition when it returns to England for the first time in 24 years. But it is Sky that really digs deep into the grass roots of the game.

“A successful England rugby team has a very positive effect on [Sky] viewing figures, just as a successful [British and Irish] Lions tour does,” says Francis.

“Post-2003 [when England won the World Cup in Australia], it was elevated to national consciousness in a way it had never been before. You remember Jonny Wilkinson appearing on Nike adverts alongside David Beckham.”

Francis sees 2015 as an opportunity to make rugby a national alternative to football, which in turn will boost ratings and cement customer loyalty to Sky’s core offerings in the sport.

In the UK, most rugby games are on pay TV, although many of the jewels in the crown remain on free-to-air channels. The main league competition, the Aviva Premiership, is split until at least 2013 between Disney’s ESPN, with 43 live games per season, and British Sky Broadcasting, with 26. Highlights are shown on ITV’s free digital channels.

But Sky also shows the Heineken Cup, equivalent to football’s Champions League, which wins bigger audiences than the Premiership, albeit in a more concentrated schedule.

Sky has the Anglo-Welsh Cup competition, as well as showing some level 2 matches from the Aviva Championship and broadcasting games played by England’s second XV, the Saxons. It also screens magazine shows such as The Rugby Club and the School of Hard Knocks.

Not surprisingly, Paul Vaughan, the chief executive of England Rugby 2015, the delivery company set up by the Rugby Football Union for the 2015 tournament, is hopeful of a large television audience.

“Through TV, rugby is delivering a shop window for the sport that will last the duration of the tournament, and hopefully beyond,” Vaughan says. He hopes ITV will do as much as possible to expose UK audiences to rugby in programming that complements the matches.

At Sky, Francis adds that he believes rugby will be on the cusp of the sort of big step forward enjoyed by football in the 1990s. “I hope RWC will capture the nation a bit like Euro 96 did for football. Then, we had had five years of the Premier League and that competition [hosted by England, who reached the semi-finals] caused a real surge of appreciation after that tournament. RWC 2015 has every chance of doing that for rugby.”

Sky will play its part in that effect, he says. “We don’t dismiss events we don’t broadcast. We will be broadcasting from the England camp every day on Sky Sports News. It will be good for our viewing figures across all our rugby if England win that tournament.”

However, the biggest audiences are to be found with the national teams of the so-called home nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Here, free to air has the edge. The BBC last autumn renewed its deal for exclusive live rights to the RBS Six Nations championship until 2017.

Sky has a slice of the international action with the October games played by England, but again the BBC has more matches, with live rights to autumn matches played by the three other home nations.

Sky sweeps up the biggest internationals played outside Europe, the Tri-Nations, next season to be renamed the Rugby Championship when Argentina join Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the first four-way tournament of southern hemisphere giants.

The difference in audiences between Six Nations matches and free-to-air league fixtures is stark. The average viewing figures for BBC broadcasts in the 2010 tournament were 4.7m compared with the 80,000-90,000 that an Aviva game might attract on ESPN or Sky. Big league matches might rise to 250,000 and the Heineken Cup in its crucial stages can hit 350,000, but that cannot compare with the viewing figures for top Six Nations fixtures, up to 9m, and certainly not the World Cup.

In 2003, England’s victory over Australia was probably the biggest audience ever for the sport in the UK, with a peak of more than 14m, despite being shown at 9am on a Saturday, and an audience share of 85 per cent. Four years later, as beaten finalists, England drew an average of 13.1m viewers to ITV screens, making it the single most watched programme on UK television in 2007.

French TV coverage shows a similar pattern. Last year, Canal+ paid €158.5m, or €31.7m per season, in a five-year deal to televise the domestic Top 14 competition. But the state-owned France Télévisions dominate internationally, with rights to the Six Nations until 2017, most of France’s international matches abroad and the Heineken. No contract has been announced for the 2015 World Cup yet.

Outside Europe, pay TV dominates in both international and domestic games. In Australia, while Channel Nine has re-entered the rugby rights race, it will still play second fiddle to News Corp’s Fox Sports, which, for instance, has exclusive live rights to the Super 15 tournament that kicks off its 2012 campaign on February 24.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, where rugby is of almost religious importance and still basks in its 2011 World Cup victory, Sky Sports is the dominant holder of rights for the domestic, Super Rugby and All Blacks matches.

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