Territories worldwide gear up for rugby coverage

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The Rugby World Cup in France, Scotland and Wales is expected to attract expanded TV audiences in some of the globe's emerging rugby powers.

In Italy and Japan, two growing rugby countries, packages will be available through pay TV outlet Sky Sports.

Sky Sports Italia will bring a mixture of live, rebroadcast and highlights packages and might see increased viewership with soccer's popularity waning as a result of ongoing scandals, according to Sky Sports Italia executive Francesco Luti.

Rugby's sense of "fair play" and the improving Italian team (ranked No. 9 in the world as of Aug. 20) mean that the sport is one of the beneficiaries, he adds. The Italians could, in the Cup's group stage, challenge Scotland in its quest to go to the quarterfinals behind favorites New Zealand, he added.

"Rugby is a sport on the rise in Italy," said Luti, "and I think this World Cup will certainly be the most popular rugby tournament ever broadcast in Italy."

On the other side of the globe, Japan is prepping coverage, with Sky Sports Japan scheduled to show every one of the 48 games in the World Cup live and in high-definition.

According to Sky Sports Japan exec vp John Knowles, the service is expecting "around half a million people to tune in for the key games, those ones featuring Japan, as well as the semifinals and the final."

Japan is seven hours ahead of France, so as well as showing the games live local time, the majority will be repeated twice in the ensuing 24 hours, at breakfast time and around 8 p.m., Knowles said.

Sky has also signed an agreement with a terrestrial broadcaster to show "a significant proportion of the key games, either live or tape-delayed," he said.

Sky will provide online coverage via IPTV to cable subscribers as well as through the International Rugby Board's site, including post-match highlights. There will be a limited amount of coverage provided to mobile phones.

In Spain and Germany, two countries not taking part in the tournament, the picture is different.

For Germany, rugby is a niche sport. However, the country's all-sports free-to-air niche channel DSF, owned by EM SportMedia, will broadcast some 15 matches live.

"We don't have any real ratings expectations," a DSF spokesman said. "Of course, rugby isn't as popular in Germany as soccer or (team) handball, but we will be airing the games live, in primetime."

Spain's pay channel Canal Plus has exclusive Spain rights for the Rugby Cup 2007, as it did for the 2003 edition.

Into Eastern Europe, rugby is growing in popularity, with Romania having been a regular Cup participant without ever having a real chance. Fans prefer soccer and ice hockey.

Russia boasts more than 30 clubs scattered across the vast country and a dedicated satellite channel devoted to ruggers. Russia's state owned RTR Sport channel has the rights. Portugal's win over Russia during qualifying dashed any hopes of the national team going to France.

Industry insiders say they expect the channel to show highlights only as the audience for a full schedule of rugby matches in Russia may not find sufficient advertising support for a national channel.

For die-hard fans, Evegeny Polotsev, director of Moscow-based satellite and Internet platform PR-TV -- which produces a package of specialist sports channels include "Regbi TV" (Rugby TV) -- is hoping to secure subsidiary rights from RTR Sport to show all the matches.

"Regbi TV is available via Internet providers on personal computers and TV set top boxes to 32 million potential viewers, although now we have 7,000 subscribing TV homes, representing about 21,000 viewers," Polotsev said.

The dedicated rugby channel is 26% owned by the Russian Rugby Union, which works closely with its producers.

Eric J. Lyman reported from Rome; Julian Ryall reported from Tokyo. Pamela Rolfe in Madrid, Scott Roxborough in Cologne, Germany, and Nick Holdsworth in Moscow contributed to this report.
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