The UK’s Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has called for rugby union’s Six Nations to be included in the ‘Category A’ list of sports events that must be shown on free-to-air television.
The formal request from MPs comes ahead of the bidding process for the Six Nations rights from 2022 onwards and the threat that rights will be lost by public broadcaster the BBC and commercial broadcaster ITV.
The Six Nations currently sits in Group B of the UK government’s listed sporting events which can be aired live on subscription television provided that secondary coverage (highlights and/or delayed broadcast) is offered to free-to-air broadcasters.
Announcing its request, the DCMS Committee claimed that the Six Nations Council had failed to provide a clear answer to questions about “whether it had held discussions with the government about moving the tournament from Category B”.
Bids allowing a broadcaster to share the rights with another will also be permitted during the forthcoming tender process after confirmation from the Six Nations Council, the DCMS Committee added.
BBC and ITV hold the rights from 2016 to 2021 in a deal worth around £50m (€56.1m/$62.5m) a year but it was recently claimed that joint offers would not be considered by the Six Nations Council.
The heightened scrutiny around a move to a lucrative pay-television deal is also set against the backdrop of the tournament organisers’ proposed investment deal with private equity group CVC Capital Partners.
DCMS Committee chair Julian Knight MP said: “We’re pleased that in response to our letters, Six Nations has confirmed that joint bids from broadcasters are now being considered. When we put this to [BBC director general] Lord Hall yesterday, he confirmed that the BBC had put in a bid that would involve a sublicense with ITV.
“We welcome the BBC’s acknowledgment and thanks for the role this committee has played in the debate, including the step we’ve taken to formally request that DCMS secretary of state Oliver Dowden considers moving the Six Nations from Category B to Category A of listed sports.
“Such a move would ensure the championship remains available via free-to-air channels. We await his response next week.”
Speaking at the DCMS hearing yesterday (Thursday), Hall predicted that the Six Nations will head to pay-television operators during the next rights cycle.
He was quoted by The Telegraph as saying that “the strength of running linear and online side-by-side is that we can bring the country together”. He continued: “For example, the Six Nations. We are in the middle of negotiations over the Six Nations and want to keep it free-to-air but it probably won’t. It ought to be a listed event.
“It would be dreadful if it disappeared behind a paywall. I hope there’s a way to allow what we have done to continue. It should be listed properly.”
Six Nations earlier this month refused to rule out the possibility of the event heading behind a paywall.
CVC’s attempts to acquire a stake in the Six Nations were last month were reported to have been held up by a disagreement over the championship’s media rights. CVC started an exclusive period of negotiation with Six Nations Rugby last September with a view to acquiring a 15-per-cent stake in the championships for a reported £300m.
As a condition of the deal, CVC is said to want to take control of the tournament’s commercial arm and the right to arrange its next broadcasting deal.
The Rugby Paper has previously reported that pay-television broadcaster Sky was the favourites to secure a deal worth £300m but the Six Nations stressed that bids for broadcast rights going forward had not yet been lodged.
Along with Sky and rival pay-television broadcaster BT Sport, the Six Nations Council could look to maximise any interest from the likes of Discovery, the international broadcaster heavily involved in OTT streaming, and DAZN, which recently launched its global boxing streaming platform in a first move into the UK.
Sky has broadcast the competition before. In 1996, England’s Rugby Football Union signed a controversial five-year agreement worth £87.5m with the broadcaster for rights to England’s home matches and domestic club rugby. The breakaway deal included rights to England’s then Five Nations matches from 1997 onwards.