Gerry Thornley: Six Nations must remain on free-to-air television

Any price the game receives for pay-per-view deal would not be worth the damage it causes

The benefits of free-to-air coverage of the Six Nations are immeasurable, the damage of any change would prove, as it has for FI and cricket, incalculable. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The benefits of free-to-air coverage of the Six Nations are immeasurable, the damage of any change would prove, as it has for FI and cricket, incalculable. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

It’s less than a quarter of a century since the then International Rugby Board declared rugby an ‘open’ game, and so as a professional sport it has barely reached adulthood.

Teething problems remain, for sure, and when historians look back on 2019/2020 they won’t require 20-20 vision to view this as another tipping point in the history of the sport.

World Cup cycles often have something to do with this, witness the great European schism circa June 2012 to April 2014, at the end of which the English and French clubs had their way, and the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) were overseeing a revamped European Rugby Champions Cup.

Now it’s turn of the international game, in the shape of World Rugby and the leading Unions/Federations, who are seeking to radically increase revenue streams.

Here again though, the Premiership clubs have been first to dip their bread, after agreeing to sell a minority shareholding, believed to be 27 per cent, for UK£200 million (€233 million) to the investment advisory firm CVC Capital Partners.

After concluding its deal with CVC, Premiership Rugby declared this to be a “new era”.

While World Rugby seeks to get its World League over the line, the Six Nations are considering three competing investment offers; one from CVC, another from IMG, and the other organised by World Rugby in partnership with the marketing agency Infront.

They should consider the cost as well as the price, because the figures being mentioned would clearly point to the Six Nations no longer being on free-to-air television.

CVC acquired Formula One in 2006 for £1.4bn. They were infamously accused of “raping the sport” by Bob Fernley, the then deputy team principal of Force India who was, admittedly, a rare voice of discontent.

“All their actions have been taken to extract as much money from the sport as possible and put as little in as possible,” he said.

Over the next decade estimates suggest that CVC made up to £3.5bn. In 2014 it is reported they took in £347m from a turnover of £1.25bn, at that point representing a return on investment of more than 350 per cent.

Worldwide audience

When CVC did sell, F1 was valued at £8bn but the sport was poorer. They had employed Bernie Ecclestone to run the business for them, and fees for race promoters rose as state-backed venues paid handsomely for hosting F1 races, while the classic European tracks repeatedly made a loss and, in cases such as Silverstone and Monza, were in danger of bankruptcy.

Ecclestone also oversaw a departure from free-to-air TV to pay-per-view. From this year F1 will be exclusive in the UK to Sky for six years in a deal reportedly worth £600m, but the worldwide audience has fallen by 137million since 2010.

Last week, the Guardian also cited the example of cricket as a warning to the Six Nations regarding the perils of plumping for the ‘jam today’ option of pay-per-view over free-to-air television.

From 2006 to 2016, the number of adults who played cricket in the UK at least once a week dropped by almost 20 per cent , from 195,200 in 2006 to 158,500 in 2016. Over that same decade, weekly participation in rugby union rose from 185,600 to 199,000.

According to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, around 6.6 million people in the UK watched the live coverage of Wales against England in Cardiff. Meanwhile, the new Six Nations CEO, and former managing director for the National Basketball Association, Ben Morel, said: “I’m not looking at free-to-air, I’m looking at free-to-view, in the sense that more and more of our fans stream the games.”

According to Barb, 28,000 people watched the match on a laptop or PC, 18,000 on a tablet and 8,000 on a phone. And the rest, some 6,580,000, watched it on BBC One, where it was the fourth most-viewed programme on that week.

At its peak, the 2005 Ashes on Channel 4 attracted 8.4 million viewers; a decade later, the 2015 Ashes on Sky drew just under 500,000.

Audience figures for Sky, BT and other pay-per-view broadcasters, are not available, but free-to-air viewerships dwarf them by similar ratios in rugby.

This applies in Ireland as well, where Virgin Media TV’s average audiences for Ireland’s Six Nations games against England, Scotland, Italy, France and Wales were 980,000, 599,400, 559,500, 772,400 and 613,000.

Hugely damaging

To reduce those audience figures to the mere fractions that would invariably follow were the Six Nations broadcast on pay-per-view would be hugely damaging to the sport in the long run, and not just in terms of reduced sponsorship deals, but in the numbers watching the game, especially younger viewers.

Amid all of this it’s also worth recording the damaging two years when viewers in the UK and Ireland had to subscribe to not one, but two, pay-per-view broadcasters to watch the European Champions Cup, and this after a decade without any free-to-air live coverage.

In response, EPCR are seeking to regain some of the lost ground with one game per round reserved for terrestrial television, be it France Television, Channel 4 or Virgin Media TV. The latter’s three games involving Irish sides drew average audiences of 88,500 for Munster v Gloucester, 112,600 for Leinster v Toulouse and 222,800 for Munster v Exeter, in part explained by it being at tea-time on a Saturday of the final weekend whereas the others were at lunchtime.

The competition has not reached out to audiences like this since the 2006 final between Munster and Biarritz was shown live on RTÉ.

Assuredly the biggest factor in ensuring the Six Nations has historically reached out into the hearts, souls and minds of audiences young and old, both diehard and casual fans, in the competing countries and beyond, is that it has been kept on free-to-air television. The benefits are immeasurable, the damage of any change incalculable.

The cost of abandoning that principle is simply not worth the price.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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