Rugby needs to think long and hard about selling the Six Nations to pay-TV

In the rush to acclaim CVC’s £365 million Six Nations deal it would be useful to take a step back and ask a simple question: what’s in it for them?

Scotland's win over England on the opening weekend of the Guinness Six Nations had a TV audience of 8.7 million. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Private equity firms aren’t renowned for their largesse. CVC are going into this because they see rugby’s oldest international tournament as a sound investment, a chance to make good on their original outlay.

Selling the television rights to the highest bidder would be one way of doing that and it just so happens that the current deal with BBC and ITV is about to expire.

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So what does that mean for the armchair fan? No more winter afternoons watching rugby on council telly?

Ben Morel, chief executive of the Guinness Six Nations. Picture: ©INPHO/Guinness Six Nations

Money talks but the six unions need to think long and hard about allowing the Six Nations to leave free-to-air television.

They need only look at cricket’s marginalisation following the decision to sell England’s games to pay TV.

When the six-year deal with BBC and ITV was struck in 2015 the WRU chairman and Six Nations council member Gareth Davies said the need to keep the games on free-to-air channels was a “strong motivator”.

Is the motivation still as strong after a year when no paying customers have come through the gates? We shall see, but the value of ITV and BBC should not be measured solely in monetary terms.

Vast numbers have tuned in to watch this year’s Championship, with Scotland’s historic win over England at Twickenham on the opening weekend peaking at 8.7 million. The figures have been strong across the opening three rounds.

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The exposure this gives the sport should not be underestimated, particularly in Scotland where playing numbers are already worryingly low.

The Autumn Nations Cup, staged at short notice last year, was broadcast mainly on Amazon Prime Video but some games were shown on Channel 4 and a blended deal involving pay-TV and free to air could be the future for the Six Nations.

One theory doing the rounds is that England’s and France’s games will move behind a paywall, with their large population bases providing the numbers needed. It would also go some way to explaining why those unions got a larger slice of the CVC pie.

Ben Morel, the Six Nations chief executive, said all the right things yesterday as he talked up this season’s viewing figures and played down suggestions that the tournament was heading for pay-TV.

“The audiences have been phenomenal. The special moments the Six Nations bring go beyond sport really. We recognise the responsibility we have,” Morel said.

“The long-term interests of the game are what will guide us and CVC are aligned with that.”

CVC have been involved in sport for over 20 years, most notably in Formula One. But their sights have been set on rugby for some time and significant investments have already been made in the Pro14 and the English Premiership.

The Six Nations is a different beat altogether and selling out to television’s highest bidder would be short-termism of the worst kind.

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