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Fans have fears over paywall as Six Nations enters broadcast discussions

CEO Ben Morel insists there must be ‘balance’ between commercial gain and exposure.

Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Updated Jan 28th 2021, 8:04 AM

SIX NATIONS CEO Ben Morel says the tournament needs to find “balance” between mass exposure to the public and increasing its revenues as the prospect of the championship going behind a paywall continues to be discussed.

With the deal for private equity firm CVC Capital Partners to purchase 14.5% of the commercial rights for the Six Nations close to completion, there is widespread concern among supporters that the championship will disappear from free-to-air TV.

The Six Nations’ current broadcasting deal with Virgin Media in Ireland, as well as the BBC and ITV in the UK, expires after this year’s championship and reports have suggested that subscription-based broadcasters such Sky Sports have bid for the rights from next year.

Amazon Prime dipped its toe into rugby broadcasting for last year’s Autumn Nations Cup and Six Nations CEO Ben Morel described the company as “a fantastic partner” during yesterday’s Six Nations launch, when he also confirmed the CVC deal is in its final stages.

“Generally speaking, the reason we’re doing this is we believe such a strategic partnership can help us accelerate our development across the Six Nations and our unions,” said Morel. “Rugby needs investment in many areas.

“While we could do it ourselves, we believe we need to act quickly with the right expertise. We are facing great competitive sources of entertainment – whether they are sport or elsewhere – and we need to be accelerating our development. CVC has a proven track record of helping businesses develop quickly.”

CVC’s track record includes taking Formula 1 away from free-to-air TV after buying the sport in 2006, leading to concern among supporters that rugby will move in the same direction.

Adding to the fears on these shores is the fact that, as things stand, live coverage of Ireland’s games in the Six Nations is not protected for free-to-air broadcast, with only deferred coverage on the list.

Last month, Ireland’s Sports Minister, Catherine Martin, announced a review of the list of sporting events protected, calling for submissions from the public. 

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a-view-of-tv-cameras-at-the-game The Six Nations is not on the protected list for free-to-air TV in Ireland. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Speaking yesterday, Morel rejected the suggestion that 2021 will be the last time the Six Nations is broadcast in full on free-to-air TV.

“There’s no reason for that to be the case,” said Morel. “2021 is the championship that marks the start of a new process for broadcast rights in several of our territories – not all of them.

“Definitely, for the United Kingdom and Ireland conversations will start in the coming weeks and we will be talking to all of the various broadcasters.

“As is the nature of the industry, we are entering into a new broadcast discussion and, like any other year, our six unions will have to strike the right balance from the revenue that is needed to come back into the game.

“Everything goes back into growing the game of rugby and we are in need of appropriate financing; circumstances here are quite telling in terms of that.

“But at the same time, you need to find the right balance between the financing and the exposure and the aspirational content we can bring to new audiences in order for the game to grow.

“At the same time, the way consumers and fans consume sport and content is fast evolving.

“I don’t think it’s quite as binary as free-to-air and paywall, there’s a lot of possibilities on the spectrum. You need to factor in those changing habits too.

“That’s where we are. We’re just entering the discussion and we shouldn’t presume yet the outcome before the conversation has started.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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