The Six Nations is a much-loved fixture of the British sporting calendar.
A key reason for this is that the matches have traditionally been broadcast on free-to-air platforms in the UK – essentially meaning that they are available to all who wish to view them.
However, this could all be set to change from 2021, with pay-TV powerhouse Sky Sports expected to scoop up the exclusive live broadcast rights.
Under the current rights deal, negotiated back in 2016, BBC and ITV are the joint holders of the rights to the tournament. The two networks teamed up to make a £90 million-per-year bid, which meant they would continue to screen the action for five years.
Per The Rugby Paper via dailymail.co.uk, though, it now appears that joint bids have been banned for the upcoming auction of broadcast rights. In addition, the overall value of the rights package this time around is expected to reach in excess of £150 million-per-year. Given that neither BBC or ITV have the financial clout to match even the current price on their own, it would seem that the way is now clear for Sky to take over as the sole UK broadcaster of the tournament.
Whilst increased rights fees are always going to be attractive to the governing body of any sport, there is always a trade-off to be considered when moving a major event behind a paywall.
Cricket and Formula One have both moved in recent times to become sports which are predominantly only available through pay-TV. Although this switch has seen the broadcast rights deals for both sports become more lucrative, there has undoubtedly been a decrease in overall fan interest since they were removed from terrestrial television.
A drop in fan interest could be particularly negative for rugby union as this may lead to a fall in participation as well. Many of today’s players who grew up in the UK will have fond memories of watching the Six Nations on television, which will have inspired them to become professional sportsmen.
By moving the tournament solely to a pay-TV platform, the next generation of potential players may miss out on this opportunity.
“There is a very real danger that they will be prepared to sacrifice the big audiences on BBC and ITV for more money,” suggested an industry source.
“Cricket did that and the popularity of the sport was hit as a consequence. If rugby chooses not to learn from that mistake, then they will be at risk of the same consequence from the same lack of exposure.”
As a “Group B” event of the list of protected sporting events in the UK, whilst the Six Nations does not have to be screened live on terrestrial television, a highlights package does need to be made available to a free-to-air broadcaster.
A highlights show is far from the fully-fledged coverage that rugby fans now enjoy. It does, however, now seem as though it is what many will be forced to put up with if Sky win the rights to the tournament as expected.
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