- By Josh McCreadie
Image: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
A day forecasted by many, may finally be upon us. The prospect of the Six Nations, the crown jewel in any European rugby union fans’ calendar, going behind a paywall is edging ever closer.
Despite the lacklustre attempts by the Six Nations’ “top dogs” to douse the flames of the rumours surrounding the future of the premier competition, I think we must be honest with ourselves. The fact that conversations about the Six Nations going behind a paywall are even taking place suggests the inevitable. Even with the public outcry and calls from local MP’s to keep the Six Nations on free-to-air TV, it will merely be a short hiatus before these discussions start again. The appeal of £300 million, the amount rumoured Sky would pay, is simply too appetising for the cash stricken RFU’s to ignore, and this is before we factor in the further financial damage caused by Covid-19.
It doesn’t require great intellect to deduce that discussions regarding moving the Six Nations behind a paywall relate to the infamous CVC (CVC Capital Partners), a private equity firm, looking to finalise their 14% stake within the competition. This move would bolster their already impressive portfolio in the world of rugby union, with stakes in both the Premiership and the Pro 14, the latter providing access to the Southern Hemisphere market via South Africa’s participation in the league. If rumours are to be believed, they have also already held discussions with both New Zealand and Australia’s Rugby Union boards.
CVC’s plans to take over the world of rugby union, are very much underway. As a passionate rugby fan this does not sit well with me and should be something that is deeply worrying for our sport.
Rugby is often considered ‘a game for all, a game for all shapes and sizes’, and yes fundamentally this is true - you will do well to find another sport where players play alongside each other ranging in weight from a 130Kg prop to a 65kg scrum half. However, to say it is a game for all is slightly naïve. Rugby union, especially in England, is a very middle-class sport. The vast majority of those who play it are privately/grammar school educated, and it is on these playing fields that the fundamentals of the game are learnt – so opportunities to play the game are not afforded to all.
Therefore, a move to put the ‘piece de resistance’ of European rugby behind a paywall, only viewed by those who can afford to, further undermines the idea that it is a game for all and shuts off an avenue for new demographics to be introduced to the sport.
You don’t have to look far to see that it’s not always advisable to get into bed with foreign investment. Let’s take Formula 1 as an example, where viewing figures plummeted year-on-year between 2006 and 2017, falling by 137 million globally during the time private equity had a stake in F1.
If you are lucky enough to come across the rare beast that is an F1 fan be sure to ask them what they think of their sport because I can almost guarantee it won’t be positive. To put it bluntly, rugby union can ill afford to lose 137 million viewers, it can barely afford to lose 10. Instead, it should be cherishing every fan it has, not alienate them behind a paywall.
There are numerous examples available to the Six Nations executives as to why moving behind a paywall is a bad idea, none closer to home than English cricket.
In 2005, after arguably the most exciting summer of cricket of all times, TV peak audience for that summer’s renowned Ashes series broadcast on Channel 4 was just over 9 million, and for the first time ever cricket was the talk of the town. But how did the English Cricket Board respond? Rather than capturing the imagination of the British public, the ECB decided to move cricket to Sky Sports, a move demonstrating that revenue is more important than maintaining and growing the audience of those who watch the sport!
As a result, viewing figures have declined ever since, leading to one Ashes Test match attracting fewer viewers than a repeat of Columbo on BBC 1 which aired at the same time!
When we compare England’s 2019 Cricket World Cup games which, excluding the final were all aired on Sky, who struggled to reach even a million viewers, to that of the Women’s Football World Cup where England games regularly hit 8 million viewers on BBC, the perils of moving sport behind a paywall are laid bare.
Not only is Cricket suffering from a lack of viewership but participation levels are the lowest they have been in decades and since 2005 people playing the game have halved. At least with the announcement of the new tournament format The Hundred, due to be broadcasted on BBC, the ECB are desperately trying to undo their past mistakes.
The Six Nations should also consider the current state of Australian Rugby Union when weighing up their decision. Australia, a traditional rugby union powerhouse, has long been behind a paywall in the country and now rugby union sits outside the top 20 most popular sports in the country, in fact it sits in 26th place. Personally, I would struggle to name 25 other sports. One look at a Super Rugby match in Australia and you will see more empty seats than fans.
By comparison, if you look at Rugby Unions alternative Rugby League, then a very different picture is painted in Australia. The NRL in Australia stands proudly on the podium as one of the top three the most popular sports in the country and it is no coincidence that these games are on free-to-air TV.
I echo similar sentiments of those who opposed rugby union turning professional, and hope that I am proved wrong and see rugby union flourish as a result of this new venture. Until then I have great concerns that this decision will be a catastrophe for rugby union as we know it.