Six Nations broadcasting battleground bound to heat up

Rugby unions must balance the need to generate cash with serving public needs


For many golf fans the British Open will disappear in 2017 when one of the BBC’s crown jewels moves to Sky.

Is the Six Nations next to fall? In these changing sports broadcasting times how long will one of rugby’s great viewing attractions will remain in the hands of an RTÉ or BBC?

In the competing nations, television contracts are currently in place with BBC (UK), France Télévisions (France), RTÉ (Ireland) and Discovery Networks (Italy) until 2017. Six Nations chief executive John Feehan is not impressed by politicians who make public statements in favour of designating the Six Nations as a live Free-To-Air (FTA) event. “That’s a really negative thing for us because . . . the reality is you get really hurt badly by the [FTA]broadcasters if they know that there’s no real market or competition for them,” he explained.

Feehan has been the Six Nations boss since 2003. Television viewing figures had declined to 74 million in 2002 and, having lost Lloyds TSB as their title sponsor, things were not looking rosy. Figures have grown significantly since that 2002 low and, with RBS in place as title sponsor since 2003, viewership has been holding steady in the 125-135 million range since 2011.

Big market

“We’re very, very happy with RTÉ – we’re very happy with our terrestrial broadcasts – but we need to have the (satellite) option,” said Feehan. “The reason I mention it in an Irish context – the reality is the Irish market puts in less than three million sterling and receives significantly more than ten million sterling back. Now, if the Irish scenario hurts the broadcasting deal that can be done in the UK because of problems with Sky or BT or whoever it may be, that could have a very serious impact on the actual revenues.”

tv figures

Ireland’s Six Nations games are “deferred” listed events. They must be broadcast on a free television service with greater than 90 per cent coverage but there is no stipulation that they must be live.

A review of listed events is currently underway with submissions from interested parties to have been received by August 2014. A spokesperson for the Department for Communications said “the Minister is considering the submissions made and will make a decision on the matter in due course”.

Feehan has the IRFU’s support regarding the current designation of Ireland’s Six Nations games with the union saying it “strikes an appropriate balance between our desire to make the matches accessible to the widest possible audience and the need to avoid causing Irish rugby substantial financial losses”. Financial and player losses, perhaps. The battle for Irish playing talent with the moneyed French clubs – keeping players like Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip and recapturing Jonathan Sexton – requires the IRFU to be armed with cash, not just goodwill.

While Sky would not confirm it has bought all of Ireland’s 2015 summer Tests, the IRFU did confirm all four of Ireland’s Rugby World Cup warm-up Tests against Wales (home and away), Scotland and England will be exclusive to Sky.

The same company owns the UK rights to Ireland’s 2014-2017 autumn Tests, an agreement that required RTÉ to block its transmission of those games in Northern Ireland – somewhat of an inequality in a 32-county sport.

Lest one think the Six Nations would be immune from the allure of subscription-based lucre the championship has been here before, if not by choice. In 1996 England’s RFU sold the rights to their home rugby internationals to BSkyB.

The five-year deal included the Five/Six Nations and would expand to include France v England in Paris. The championship survived but viewership suffered. According to the UK government’s 2009 review of Free To Air listed events, England v Wales at Twickenham in 2002 attracted a Sky audience of under half a million viewers. In 2003 when the teams met in Cardiff the BBC audience was six million.

Based on figures supplied by the Six Nations, at least one game in each of the past three championships has had at least 6.6 million viewers on BBC alone with the 2013 Wales v England match topping 8.7 million. Over the past three years the largest UK audience Sky has commanded for an autumn rugby international has been 757,000 (England v New Zealand, 2013). RTÉ says it pulled in 519,800 viewers for last Autumn’s Ireland v South Africa match and 515,900 for Ireland’s 2013 loss to New Zealand. The BBC had a 7.3 million audience for England’s win in Cardiff last Friday; the most popular Premier League matches on Sky command an average of between one quarter and two fifths of that, although pub and club viewing is a factor too.

Competing nations

It’s a delicate act to balance today’s financial imperatives with the less immediate benefit of making the Six Nations widely viewable to the players of tomorrow. If the Irish Government ruled that Ireland’s Six Nations games must be available live and free-to-air it would certainly weaken Feehan’s hand in negotiation with terrestrial broadcasters.

“I don’t want to make a big issue of the Free-To-Air thing” said Feehan who, while being clear that he had no immediate intention of moving the tournament to a pay provider, was firm governments should not take away his satellite trump card. “There are very good arguments why it would be a bad idea to do it, but [for politicians] it’s good sound bite stuff”.

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