First golf’s Open Championship jumped into bed with Sky Sports. Now there are rumblings that the BBC could lose another of its sporting highlights.
The Six Nations’ chief executive John Feehan told The Daily Telegraph he is willing to consider offers from pay-TV broadcasters from 2018, saying that “it is an open market place” and that he would “consider every option” before negotiating a new TV rights deal.
That comment caused uproar from followers of the game, who have always seen the Beeb as the home of ‘Rugby’s Greatest Championship’.
The Six Nations is the pinnacle of rugby union in the northern hemisphere. Even the most casual of sports fans are happy to test the waters on a Saturday afternoon.
The dedicated rugby followers will go wherever the sport’s shown, hot-footing down to the pub if need be. But it’s those casual viewers who will desert the spectacle in their droves if the Six Nations moves to Sky Sports or BT Sport.
As we’ve already pointed out, the Six Nations is rugby for people who don’t normally like rugby. National rivalries, stupid hats, rousing songs, studs and spectacle.
If nothing else, it’s damn hard to ignore when it takes up a whole day on BBC1.
That said, Sky Sports and BT Sport have both in their own way raised the bar when it comes to watching rugby union on TV.
BT Sport already has live coverage of England’s domestic league, and has worked hard to give it an identity of its own. Magazine shows like Rugby Tonight, and big-name signings like Brian O’Driscoll all make viewers feel that rugby isn’t just filler for when the football’s not on.
Meanwhile, not even an Eddie Butler-backed BBC montage can match Sky Sports for big game bluster. England’s Autumn internationals and the British and Irish Lions both feel at home on the pay TV broadcaster, whether non-subscribers like it or not.
But is the Six Nations different? It certainly seems that way in Wales, where politician Byron Davies has led a petition to keep Welsh games free to air.
However, the Six Nations is not, despite what some believe, a broadcasting “crown jewel”. The only requirement from regulator Ofcom is that highlights are made available on terrestrial TV.
Live coverage is, as Feehan says, “an open market place”.
“We have developed the greatest championship in world rugby and the reality is we need to ensure that we continue to generate revenues that can fund and develop the game within the northern hemisphere,” Feehan said. “The Six Nations is fundamental to that. Without the revenues that the Six Nations brings in, most of the home unions probably couldn’t survive.”
The counter-argument would be that the sport itself couldn’t survive, at least in its present form, following such a drastic reduction in exposure. After all, rugby union is a minority sport compared to the behemoth that is football.
How many people for example would have heard of Thom Evans before he went on Strictly Come Dancing last year? And even if they had, might that have more to do with his relationship with Kelly Brook than his Scotland career?
Leaving aside the twinkly-toed former winger, skeptics warn that rugby participation could plummet if that groundswell of terrestrial TV support disappears.
Rugby’s back on the map this year thanks to the Rugby World Cup in England. To take it off free telly could be a costly move – in every sense of the word.