Free-to-air, subscriptions and the ‘digital space’ – What future for the Six Nations?

WORLD RUGBY’S PROPOSED Nations Championship is now off the table but rugby is facing into a period of change nonetheless.

The Six Nations has a major decision to make imminently, after private equity firm CVC Capital offered £500 million [€555 million] for a 15% stake in the tournament, according to the Daily Telegraph.

As one of the member unions in the Six Nations, the IRFU has been pondering the value of accepting the investment from a private source, which would mean relinquishing some of the power the union possesses but also swell their coffers.

Ireland were Grand Slam champions in the Six Nations last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

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CVC involvement would likely result in a move to the Six Nations no longer being shown exclusively on free-to-air television, with some games being screened on subscription service channels, or potentially a streaming service provided by the Six Nations itself.

It’s understood that a deal with CVC would also involve the November Tests hosted by the Six Nations unions. 

Whatever the terms of any agreement between the Six Nations and CVC, it appears that investment from a private equity firm is now a case of when rather than if.

CVC has already paid £230 million [€255 million] for a 27% stake in the Premiership, pumping new funds into England’s top clubs, while it’s believed that the firm is in talks with the Guinness Pro14 about a similar deal.

Speaking yesterday in Dublin, IRFU CEO Philip Browne stated that investment from private equity firms “is the reality of the here and now,” while accepting that the Six Nations being screened on free-to-air television is important.

“It has to be,” said Browne. “The big challenge is trying to maintain the balance between free-to-air and the more lucrative pay-per-view or going right out into the digital space where people can buy highlights.

“My kids don’t go to matches, they’d much rather be at home watching it on the television or on the laptop – it’s curious. It’s trying to find that balance.

“The reality is there isn’t the same revenue available from selling rights to free-to-air platforms or broadcasters.”

Browne said there has been “a paradigm shift in the way sports media rights are being purchased” and pointed to the value of the Six Nations unions “aggregating” their rights to make the product more attractive.

“We ended up last autumn with matches kicking off at the same time on different channels,” said Browne of last year’s November Tests. “That is not a very rational way of selling the sport.”

Philip Browne at the IRFU’s AGM yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The IRFU chief executive also underlined that digital platforms must be considered in the same vein as television has been in the past.

“We’re seeing it in the States and the Far East, where it’s all about digital platforms with tablets and iPhones,” said Browne.

“For people of my generation, it becomes a bit difficult to keep up but the reality is that people are consuming sport in a very different way, across different mediums and platforms.

“That requires a significant change in the way we present our sport and that requires a significant investment. 

“To some extent, that’s why there’s a lot of interest in private equity… that allows you to make the investment required to deliver across all these channels and platforms.

“Everything is changing. The best place to look to see what the future will look like is in America. You look at basketball, which is a prime example.”

The National Basketball Association [NBA] in the US owns its own NBA TV service but is also in broadcasting deals with television networks ABC, ESPN, and TNT. 

Intriguingly, Six Nations CEO Ben Morel, who succeeded John Feehan last year, previously worked with the NBA.

The Six Nations being removed from free-to-air television, even partially, will be unthinkable to some, but while Brown accepted that making rugby accessible to the wider public is important, he pointed out that change must be accepted.

“We’ve been pretty responsible up until now in the Six Nations in making sure that we have that balance,” said Browne.

“I think the way things are changing, it’s very hard to predict where it’s going to go other than linear broadcasting is likely to become a thing of the past. We can either stick our heads in the sand or embrace the change.

Wales won the Grand Slam this year. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“We’ve all agreed as the Six Nations that doing the same old thing is going to end up with the same old results and we’ll end up going backwards.

“So, we have no choice. You have to embrace the change.”

While World Rugby’s attempt to launch the Nations Championship is now “dead in the water,” the IRFU was not completely against the concept.

As with other unions, it did have concerns over player welfare in the proposed new competition.

Browne stated his belief that Tier 1 rugby nations can do more to aid the development of Tier 2 unions in the coming years but said that possible relegation from and promotion into the Six Nations was unrealistic right now.

“I don’t think anyone has any issues with promotion and relegation per se, provided you know what you’re being relegated into is not going to destroy you,” said Browne.

“The difficulty at the moment is the gap between the competitions – the Six Nations and the Rugby Europe Championship [essentially the B Six Nations] – is just too wide.

“In the future, if we can bring the performance levels up so they’re closer then you can start having a discussion about it but at this point and time, the gap is too big.”

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