It’s all about the Money
It is the last bastion of rugby’s good old days in many, many ways. And now it seems that it may be snapped up by the highest bidder to those with the deepest pockets, wrenched away from us mere mortals who have no interest in furnishing ourselves with an unsightly satellite dish and an extra gazillion reality TV show repeats.
The Six Nations place on free-to-air TV is under heavy threat from the ‘equity companies’ sniffing around the tournament as a source of revenue. The unions appear ready to sell the air time for a hatful of millions, millions which presumably will go into… something… we’re not really sure, but we are sure there won’t be as much of a trickle-down effect as they make out.
What we are sure of is that rugby will suffer. Even the organisation which would potentially hold the rights to World Rugby’s Nations League, Swiss company Infront, has warned against the dangers of putting a tournament on pay TV, with VP Dr. Christian Müller saying directly: “…if you put a sport or event exclusively on pay TV, you will kill it.”
Given the amounts of money being bandied about, it is little wonder the unions’ heads have been turned despite this warning, although it has also unleashed the usual squabbles between the English and French and the rest, with the former two insisting they should have a bigger share. Hopefully they’ll fall out so much that nothing will happen.
But Saturdays on the Beeb – or ITV – with the usual pundits will be gone. In their place would be glib promos, faddish concepts, glossy, money-spinning (for non-rugby people) ads and dollars aplenty for the industry. And for the rest of us, a sad vacuum where the Six Nations used to be in February.
Rugby is not soccer. There are not enough people willing to part with a ton of money for the sake of five weekends in spring. And that means there will not be enough children of those people able to stare at the screen in wonder at Cardiff’s full house or benefit from the direct analysis of Brian Moore. Rugby is big, but there’s a limit. It needs its free-to-air outlet. Take it away, and you take away the connection to the next generation too, never mind the current one. And there’s not enough of either to just arrogantly brave the losses.
The final weekend of the Six Nations drew 9m viewers, an extraordinary number for a sport that is more mainstream than many but is still a tiny niche to soccer’s behemoth. Take away its one credible mass media visual outlet and it will simply fade from view – as happened to cricket and Formula One. The RFU reckons England’s November internationals drew a cool million viewers (remember they were playing the All Blacks). That’s eight million fewer than Wales v England this year: how many of those extra who heard the singing and saw the spills in Cardiff were sporty kids who now have a tangible dream?
Cricket especially has suffered since it went to Sky in 2004. Formula One was acquired by CVC (one of the companies sniffing round the Six Nations by the way) and also went to Sky. It made CVC a bomb from advertising revenues and such, but as a sport and viewing pastime it was left by the wayside, with one of the teams describing it as having been ‘raped’ by CVC. Cricket’s finances swelled initially after its move to Sky, but then deflated, while participation, engagement and consciousness of the game all dropped. Ten years after cricket’s paywall defection, a peak Ashes audience of over 8m had dropped to barely 500,000.
Infront’s contribution is by some distance the most sensible: strike a balance. Take the paywall money for some of the games but leave the top bills to the wider audience. It’s all very well swelling the coffers of a union, but if nobody sees the game, nobody will want to play it. And where would the unions get their money from then?
It’s all about the Money