Comment

Six Nations broadcast deal must not simply go to the highest bidder - growing the game is more important now than ever

There is now the increasing likelihood that the championship could, at least in part, move to pay-per-view television

The Six Nations remains the most successful and lucrative tournament outside of the World Cup
The Six Nations remains the most successful and lucrative tournament outside of the World Cup Credit: AFP

It is no exaggeration to say that the next broadcasting deal for the Six Nations will be the most significant in the history of the Championship.

In these unprecedented times, the decision facing the Six Nations board over the next 12 months – the current deal with the BBC and ITV finishes at the end of the 2021 championship - will be unparalleled in both its complexity and also its consequence.

The quandary over audience reach versus revenue, particularly given the financial crisis facing the Six Nation unions that has been precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, has never before been so acute.

The days when the Six Nations chief executive would sit down with the BBC and renegotiate terms every four years or so had already come to an end in 2015, when the Beeb opted to forego its exclusive coverage two years early to strike a joint deal with ITV to ward off interest from pay TV operators including Sky Sports.

But the world has changed so utterly in the last six years that the long-standing certainty that the Six Nations, as one of the jewels in the crown of the UK sporting calendar, is on the line.

Critically, the championship is not deemed by the Department of Culture Media and Sport to be an official ‘crown jewel’ in terms of broadcasting, rejecting calls in March to upgrade the tournament to one of the protected list of sporting events that must stay on free-to-air (FTA) television.

So, as a ‘B-listed’ event, up to now, the commitment to keep the championship on terrestrial television in the UK has come from within, founded on the fantastic viewing figures that ensure the Six Nations during the months of February and March attracts viewers from non-rugby backgrounds.  

The value of title sponsorship has traditionally been underpinned by terrestrial TV’s extra reach. It was as recent as January 2019 that Ben Morel, the Six Nations chief executive, heralded the benefits of remaining on free-to-air.

“It makes it extremely valuable for the Six Nations to have partners like BBC, and ITV,” he said. “We are all building on those strong foundations but at the same time with that common objective of keep innovating, keep connecting with youth and free-to-air gives you that opportunity and not only talk to rugby supporters.

“It makes it quite unique that we have scarcity, appointment-to-watch and free-to-air coverage. I am pretty satisfied with where we are.”

Yet several key factors have since seen that position shift to the point where there is now the increasing likelihood that the championship could, at least in part, move to pay television.

The decision by the unions to pool their broadcasting rights to include both the Six Nations and autumn internationals to increase the collective value was the first step, a position further complicated by the on-going talks about creating a new international tournament as part of global calendar discussions.

England’s autumn internationals have been shown on Sky Sports for almost 25 years and pooling the rights was always likely to bring the terrestrial commitment of the Six Nations into focus.

The backdrop has been further complicated by the interest in private equity firm CVC in securing a stake in the Six Nations and subsequent impact the proposed deal could have on the need to maximise revenues at the expense of audience reach. The Six Nations however have always insisted the two are not linked and in any case, the CVC deal is not yet done.

The main game-changer however came last week, with confirmation that Amazon Prime secured the main broadcasting rights for the Autumn Nations Cup, involving the Six Nations, Fiji and Georgia.

As well as bringing a new competitor into the marketplace for international rugby rights, the Amazon deal further complicates the reach versus revenue model.

The company does not correspond to any previous model. Is it pay TV? Consumers might already subscribe to the service for its free delivery of goods and see the rugby content as free. The numbers of subscribers are also much higher than may be generally perceived, and competitive, if not exceeding pay TV.

Then there is price. A supporter could subscribe to Amazon for only one month, pay around £8 and to watch the tournament, making it much cheaper than subscription television.

The problem however arises over how supporters can access the matches. Not everyone owns a smart TV, or knows how to watch Amazon on it if they do. Viewing matches on laptops or tablets is simply not the same experience.

There is also the sense of a narrative, including preview shows and bulletins that terrestrial or pay TV can offer to consider.

Yet a further complicating factor is that given the impact of the pandemic, it is no longer possible to assume that terrestrial television, either state or commercial, will have the financial resources to keep bidding in the same way.

It would be wrong to restrict the bidding process to a one-horse race, at a time when unions are facing alarming financial uncertainty and given the implications this will also have on funding the grassroots game.

The consequences are that the tender process is likely to be as flexible as it has ever been in terms of how the rights are packaged. It could mean a shorter-term deal, for example two years, or longer than the current six-year deal.

The process that began in February with reports of a £300million-plus auction for the broadcasting rights remains paused and is not likely to resume until the New Year.

Given the complexity and importance of the situation, a final decision could be left as late as early 2022, hopefully by then the world is in a better place. 

No one is doubting the challenge that confronts the decision-makers. But we can only hope that the process will not be based solely on accepting the highest bid.

The Six Nations remains the most successful and lucrative tournament outside of the World Cup, it is critical that the new deal ensures it remains front and centre of the national sporting narrative with the biggest viable reach. 

While it would be understandable for the unions facing dire financial shortfalls to take a short-term view to cash in, they should hold their nerve. It is now more important than ever that the decision is founded on a long-term strategy to grow the game.