Six Nations free-to-air TV warning as BBC admits it may not be able to afford coverage

The captains pose with the trophy at the 2023 Guinness Six Nations launch in London. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)The captains pose with the trophy at the 2023 Guinness Six Nations launch in London. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
The captains pose with the trophy at the 2023 Guinness Six Nations launch in London. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
The BBC may no longer be able to afford to show the Six Nations due to the rising cost of broadcast rights and a fall in the corporation’s income.

Barbara Slater, the BBC’s outgoing director of sport, said that some “incredibly difficult” decisions would have to be made.

The Six Nations is traditionally available on a free-to-air basis in the UK and for the last eight years the TV rights have been shared by the BBC and ITV. However, Slater has warned MPs that the Beeb’s days of covering the championship may be numbered.

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Unlike the World Cup, Wimbledon and the Olympics, the Six Nations is not on the list of ‘protected’ tournaments that are guaranteed free-to-air coverage. A deal was struck in 2015 which saw the BBC share the rights with ITV, a move that split the cost and kept the championship on the terrestrial channels while staving off pay-TV predators. It was renewed in 2021 for another four years but will expire after the 2025 Six Nations.

“We need a well-funded BBC if we are going to be able to continue to afford sports rights,” Slater told the Digital, Media and Sport select committee. “Sports rights in the UK have more than doubled in the past decade. BBC’s income in real terms has gone down 30 per cent. It is incredibly difficult for the BBC to maintain, across a range of sports, the expectations of those governing bodies.

“With the Six Nations, like anything, we will have to assess the affordability at the time. Because it is very difficult for the BBC, on that trajectory of income, to continue to afford everything that we have. The truth is we’re probably not going to be the highest bidder, and it will come down to individual governing bodies as to how they balance that reach and revenue.”

The Six Nations is owned by the six competing unions and the private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, who each have a seventh stake. CVC paid £365 million in 2021 for its 14.3 per cent. The stakeholders will have to measure the benefits of keeping the championship free-to-air and the exposure that brings against a more lucrative deal with a pay-TV company. The current contract sees the BBC broadcast all Scotland and Wales home men’s Six Nations matches and the women’s tournament. ITV shows all England, Ireland, Italy and France men’s home games.

While the Six Nations has traditionally been available on terrestrial TV, England went their own way at the turn of the century and their home games were shown on Sky from 1997 to 2002. They have been free-to-air since, as has the Rugby World Cup which is on ITV in the UK.

Niall Sloane, the director of ITV Sport, was also unable to offer any guarantees of keeping both the Six Nations free-to-air. “I don’t think we’ve ever done a deal where there wasn’t speculation, and probably well-founded speculation, that it could, in some or in whole, go to a pay operator,” he said. “But it’s less so with the Rugby World Cup because we’ve only done two deals in my time at ITV. I think they recognise that if you’re going to grow the game, something like the Rugby World Cup should be on free-to-air but there’s no guarantee of it whatsoever.”

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