Every February and March, millions of rugby fans around the UK are glued to see the drama of the Six Nations unfold.
The past five years has seen the tournament shared by two terrestrial broadcasters: BBC and ITV. Both channels pulling in huge numbers in terms of viewership and have received plaudits across the board in rugby for their coverage.
However, with the current deal expiring after this year’s tournament, the 2022 rights to broadcast the tournament may be given to Amazon Prime, the new boys in rugby broadcasting.
BT Sport and Sky Sports, who covered England’s Six Nations home games from 1997 to 2002, will also be coming to the table with their considerable cheque books, which only increases chances that next year’s edition could be broadcast behind a pay wall.
So what could be the state of play come the middle of 2021?
Six Nations Partnership with CVC
CVC are a private equity and investment firm with huge power in the world of sport as illustrated as they currently own shares in Formula One and a 27% stakehold in Premiership Rugby alongside a similar stake in PRO 14.
In January, it was confirmed that the Six Nations had signed a contract with CVC worth £365 million. It will see them buy into the Six Nations with a 14.5% stake in the competitions commercial rights.
French Rugby President Bernard Laporte commented that CVC looked at rugby ‘as a strong, solid and up and coming asset.’
Many in rugby see this as a long term partnership as rugby looks to recover from the Covid pandemic. CVC are also not ones to sit on their money. The deal with them is so lucrative partly because they may give further investment across the sport in years to come.
This was illustrated in their investment in Formula One from 2006 to 2017. They took over in a £1.4 billion stake and the end results saw the sport being valued at £8 billion. The sport grew financially even if there was controversy surrounding the CEO Bernie Ecclestone.
A similar path followed by cricket?
There is fear in some quarters that rugby is following the same path as cricket after the 2005 Ashes, the last time test cricket was last broadcast on terrestrial television.
Free-to-air international cricket has returned in recent times with England’s World Cup triumph being screened on Channel 4. Last summer, the BBC showed two of England T20 matches with similar plans for this summer’s Hundred.
And in an unprecedented move, Channel 4 will show the India v England test series marking the arrival of test cricket back to terrestrial tv.
However, the ‘wilderness years’ followed cricket’s removal from terrestrial television; the Ashes in 2005 had a peak audience 8.2 million. In comparison, Sky Sports Ashes coverage in 2009 had a peak of 1.92 million and then 1.3 million in 2013.
The fear is that the Six Nations could follow suit. 17.7 million people had tuned in to BBC’s Six Nations coverage over the first four rounds of the 2020 Championship. These numbers would be significantly lower if the Six Nations was to go to a pay tv service and could see a decline in interest of rugby as a sport because of this.
England’s future broadcast deal
England’s contract with Sky ended last year and there will surely be some talk on what happens next as 2021 progresses.
Chief Executive of the RFU, Bill Sweeney has talked in depth about how Amazon Prime could enter the bidding race for the Six Nations.
Sweeny said: “We met with them at the end of the Autumn Nations Cup, in terms of what they were looking for it’s gone well for them.
“And they see ways it can get better again for them as well. So we would hope this would result in further conversations.”
A missed opportunity?
Many sporting events in England such as the Grand National, Wimbledon and the Rugby World Cup Final are listed as events that must have terrestrial coverage in the Ofcom code on Sports. All these events fall under Category A.
The Six Nations is a Category B event meaning that they can be shown on pay television but there must be highlights or delayed coverage shown on terrestrial.
In 2020, there were calls from across the television industry that the Six Nations should be bumped up to Category A event. This included then BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall who branded such a move to pay tv as ‘dreadful.’
As such, Kevin Brennan, Labour MP for Cardiff West, along with 11 other Welsh MPs submitted proposals to keep Six Nations on free to air television.
However, the proposal failed with the Six Nations still placed in Category B in the Ofcom code. Julian Knight, Committee Chairman of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport felt the rejection was “a missed opportunity.”
The effect on rugby
Rugby union in England has seen declining participation levels over the past four years. Based on people who play the game at least twice a month, there were 259,600 people taking the sport up in 2016, but only 195,300 in 2020. Although Covid did impact the 2020 figures.
Declining participation numbers should cause immense worry to the hierarchy of the sport in this country.
If the Six Nations was to go behind a pay wall, its long term popularity could well decline which would create a diminishing interest in the game.
And a move to pay tv would be disastrous in terms of raising the games popularity and a decline in participation, especially at a time when England are thriving after winning the Autumn Nations Cup and the Six Nations.
The powers that be at World Rugby should be sacrificing a slightly bigger pay day in order to see the game grow and keep a tournament which is universally loved in the rugby world on free to air TV.
That surely should be the aim as the rugby world builds up to the next Rugby World Cup in France in 2023.