Six Nations paywall would rake in millions – at the cost of millions more

The Six Nations is reportedly on the verge of leaving free-to-air TV but a multi-million pound move wouldn't be worth losing millions of would-be fans, says Michael Potts

Six Nations

Barely a fan among us would deny the sporting world revolves around cold, hard cash in the 21st century.

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Sport and money are inextricably linked, hand-in-hand, a co-dependant relationship that is spiralling out of control – for better or for worse – in many sectors.

Rugby Union is the latest sport to hit the headlines with seismic changes on the horizon, with reports of a mega-money deal that could take the Six Nations off free-to-air TV.

The iconic annual tournament has gripped the nation through three rounds of action so far with two left to savour, but the next round of bidding for TV rights will not allow joint bids – a move that could scupper BBC and ITV’s current co-existence and lob coverage over the paywall of another major broadcaster.

With the deal valued at around £300 million, it’s easy to see the attraction to the powers that be. Unified TV coverage all under one roof with a whopping price tag slapped across it. Job done.

However, the question remains: would the millions of pounds set to flood into the coffers be worth millions of fans, casual audiences and would-be participants being shut out at the gates?

Rugby, for all its current status and popularity, is a minority sport, yet the Six Nations transcends sport. It goes beyond the usual hardy crowd and reaches audiences who wouldn’t think to pay for it.

Each game draws in an average of 8.3 million viewers, around an eighth of the UK’s entire population. Those millions would be undoubtedly lost away from terrestrial TV.

How many casual viewers perusing the box on a lazy Sunday afternoon will miss out on being inspired to soak up the action at their local rugby club instead?

How many fewer pint-sized Owen Farrells and Maro Itojes will nag their parents into letting them take up rugby at school after watching their new heroes play on TV?

If the Six Nations vanishes, how will the wider nation know the names, the stories, the characters that make rugby what it is?

It all sounds very dramatic, a looming catastrophe, but for the regular, casual British public it isn’t. The nation will simply find another way to spend five weekends of the year.

The British public doesn’t need rugby, rugby needs the British public.

If Sky Sports – now the leading contenders to take on the tournament between 2021-2024 – do indeed take up the rights, they will generate a good product. This certainly isn’t a sleight on Sky or any other paywall broadcaster such as BT Sport, but they can’t offer what BBC and ITV guarantee – a sprawling audience and the curiosity of new viewers.

Formula 1 is prime example of how a paywall has shaped a sport. Sky F1’s coverage is fantastic and the sport’s revenue has soared following the move, but audience figures are a fraction of what they could be and casual Formula 1 chat has largely evaporated across the country.

A very similar tale can be told about cricket after the decision to shift games behind a paywall in 2005.

In the 15 years since cricket left terrestrial TV, participation has dropped and – similar to F1 – casual chatter in workplaces, offices, pubs and around the dinner table has ceased in all but die-hard fan households.

On a personal note, the 2019 Cricket World Cup was something of an awakening for this journalist.

Growing up without free-to-air cricket in a house of non-sports fans naturally meant I missed out on years of action, years of characters and rich cricket history – I was simply unaware of it happening, I wasn’t exposed to the ways, the traditions, the appeal of the sport.

Now armed with the relevant subscriptions, I can soak up any and every sport I like, cricket being very much among them, but conversation about the matches I revel in rarely leaves our four walls.

While I might have relished the red-hot summer of white ball cricket, the masses weren’t exposed to England’s heroics until Channel 4 sub-letted the rights for the CWC final.

On that day, the whole country was treated to a breathtaking showdown against New Zealand, and a conclusion that could go down as arguably the sporting highlight of the decade.

Had terrestrial TV not intervened to broadcast the iconic super over, millions would have missed out. The moment would have happened, but just a smattering would have been tuned in to see it, the moment losing its power to inspire.

Aside from chit-chat and ‘the buzz’ of a major tournament broadcast to many, very practically, rugby requires a deep talent pool to dip into, the deeper the better.

It demands youngsters catching the bug from their first P.E. lesson – or their first Six Nations game on TV. If a youngster misses out on those things, and doesn’t come from a family where the rugby flame is preserved and relayed, they’re simply going to miss out. The next big thing may not get his or her chance to realise their potential without being sparked into trying to unlock it.

There are pros for rugby if it does leave terrestrial TV, and a decision is reportedly far from being reached, but are the millions of short-term pounds worth the potential sacrifice of millions of long-term fans, participants and even would-be future international players?

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Rugby needs to decide, and rugby needs to be right.