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UK government rejects Six Nations free-to-air proposal

The UK government has rejected calls from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee for rugby union’s Six Nations tournament to be promoted to the Group A category of listed sports events reserved for free-to-air coverage.

MPs made the request given the increasing likelihood that the Six Nations would be placed behind a paywall for the first time since 2002 as a result of broadcast rights talks covering the tournaments from 2022 to 2024.

The Six Nations currently sits in Group B of the 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. The only rugby union event within Group A is the Rugby World Cup final.

DCMS Committee chair, Julian Knight MP, said: “We’ve been informed by the government that it has rejected our call to review the listing of the Six Nations Championship to give it Group A status which would have ensured it remained available on free-to-air channels.

“It is very disappointing and a real missed opportunity that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is not even prepared to consider our request. It would have given fans hope for the future to see a national event that brings people together was being protected for all. That’s the message that becomes even more important in a time like this.”

The formal request from MPs came 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.

BBC and ITV hold the rights from 2016 to 2021 in a deal worth around £50m (€54.2m/$57.9m) a year and the DCMS Committee earlier said that bids allowing a broadcaster to share the rights with another would be permitted during the forthcoming tender process after confirmation from 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. 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 claimed that pay-television broadcaster Sky was the favourite 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.