Keith Duggan: Rugby must not jump into the Amazon money pit

Thoughts need to turn to the fans who have an additional subscription but a leaner menu

Jeff Bezos, billionaire retailer to the world, novice space cadet and all around very-strange fish was photographed with Prince William at the Glasgow climate summit this week. It was a timely meeting as it gave Bezos a chance to quiz William about the lineout options for Wales coach Wayne Pivac ahead of the November rugby internationals.

Bezos is a hands-on kind of entrepreneur so the chances are he will be curious to know what kind of viewing numbers the upcoming rugby internationals generate on his streaming service, Amazon Prime.

Last November, Ben Franks, one of the longest serving rugby players of the professional era, retired from the game. Franks, a two time world cup winner with the All-Blacks, made his professional debut in 2005, the same year as Amazon Prime was dreamed up as a delivery service for the blizzard of stuff shipped around the world by the parent company.

It soon developed a video and television wing and has inevitably evolved into a fully-fledged streaming service which now incorporates live sports events. 17 out of the 20 international rugby games will be aired on Amazon over the next few weeks. Conveniently for Irish audiences, the Ireland games against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina will be broadcast on RTÉ and Channel 4. Still, the development offers a grim snapshot of the volatile future of sport on television - and the consequences for many of those sports, particularly rugby.


In the professional era, rugby has used live TV coverage very smartly. Since the sport abandoned amateurism in 1995, its club competitions - the English Premiership, the ever-morphing Celtic league and the much-hyped Heineken Cup - helped to establish the sport as a weekend alternative while the hardy international flowers of the Six Nations, the Lions tour and the World Cup were repackaged and reissued to attract more sponsors, more television bidders, more money.

Over the years, dedicated rugby fans became used to catching early-morning Tri-Nations games or club games from Australia. Rugby seemed to get the balance right between paid subscription games on Sky and the retention of the mass audience guaranteed by the airing of its winter internationals and major tournaments on terrestrial television.

It is easy to get nostalgic for the time when rugby seemed to be a sport dreamed up simply to allow the French to exhibit their superior instinct for off-the-cuff play and for the BBC to do what they used to do best; chuck a scarf and a Savile Row winter coat on Des Lynam and have him set a plummy scene under the raw skies of Edinburgh or Twickenham. Throw in Bill McLaren or Nigel Starmer Smith in the commentary box and there you had it: perfect winter's entertainment. Even when Sky began to bite into rugby coverage, it wasn't all that much of an imposition.

But the proliferation of pay-per-view services, from BT Sport to ESPN to Netflix and now Amazon, means that the once-simple pleasure of watching the Winter rugby internationals has become more complicated. Some people have Amazon Prime by choice, others as part of package deals. But many other rugby-viewers may be just vaguely aware of its existence - and less interested in signing up for it. Others may be uncertain of how you'd even go about signing up for the service. No matter the category into which people fall, the necessity of having access to yet another streaming service is an added hassle. Plus it removes a series of enticing games from its mass audience.

Like all professional sports, rugby needs money. The sudden cancellation of the season in early 2020 has been a hammer blow to the various unions. The decision to sell significant rights of the Pro 14, the English Premiership and the Six Nations to the investment firm CVC has already led to alarmed predictions of an investment giant essentially dictating the future structures of the game.

Amazon Prime paid just £20 million for its rugby series: pocket change for a company valued at £1.3 trillion. It has already begun to bite at Sky for coverage of Premier League games. DAZN, another streaming service, outbid Sky Italia by paying £2.1 billion for Serie A to add to its growing portfolio. Netflix has dropped heavy hints that it is interested in bidding for the rights to show Formula 1. Already, the age of Sky - the satellite dish, the manufactured gaudiness - is beginning to look quaint.

If Bezos and Amazon become serious about leading sports streaming, Sky will find itself exactly where it placed the BBC: unable to match the bids. What all of this means for the sports fan at home with his or her remote control is more subscriptions and a leaner menu.

The question is whether rugby is wise to jump into the money pit just because it is there. It is a young professional sport and has a limited appeal beyond those nations where the tradition has taken hold. It has retained the authentic sense of being a community sport. The Six Nations tournament has carried Italy through seasons of miserable experience simply because they want to bolster the numbers. Germany, Spain and the Scandinavian countries have remained blissfully indifferent to the allure of the game.

In addition, rugby has begun to face a serious existential inquisition as head-related illnesses of former players begin to become more common. For a period at least, the physical prowess of the athletes and the violent-collision appeal of the game left safety procedures floundering.

For all of that, it has never been more popular. That’s partly because it is firmly established as a vital and exciting part of the winter calendar in this part of the world. It’s a delicate balance for World Rugby, negotiating its television rights pay-days without losing the game - and abandoning the crowd.