We will all pay the price for rugby’s bonanza

Virgin Media Sport’s Alan Quinlan and Dave McIntyre with the Six Nations trophy in Rome. Our columnist says pay-per-view broadcasting of the Six Nations is not too far away. Picture: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Like rugby or loathe it, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a comforting, old-school pleasure in shuffling unthinkingly into your sitting-room at this time of year and pointing the remote control at your TV, all the while secure in the knowledge that the Six Nations is never more than that simple push of a button away.

Like all of life’s joys, we take that one for granted.

Consider the hurdles we have to jump to watch most of our sport these days. With TV rights splintering like the UK’s Tory party, the first job is to decide what it is you want to watch. Then you mull whether you have the time and the money to justify the spend. And all that before the dreaded phone calls, direct debits and installation processes.

There’s something depressing about the fact we now pay for sport in the same way we do electricity and mortgages. That compartmentalisation and commercialisation of the viewing experience has made days like the last round of the Six Nations so exhilarating, especially when it delivers the drama seen in 2015 and 2018 when Ireland clinched a title and a Grand Slam. 

RTÉ’s peak audience reached 1.3m when Ireland stuffed Scotland in Murrayfield and pinched the title on points difference from England and Wales four years ago. TV3 announced viewing figures of 1.4m, including those who took it all in on their 3 Player, when Joe Schmidt’s side destroyed England at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day 12 months ago.

This communal experience is a rare treat now. Champions League football used to be a given. It was always there, sitting snugly in the listings beside Coronation Street, Fair City and the evening news awaiting our attention or indifference. Same with European rugby, cricket and Formula 1. But sport has long since given up any pretence it isn’t chasing the money with its tongue hanging out.

So enjoy the drama as it unfolds tomorrow from Rome, Cardiff and London. And over the course of the next two years until the current Six Nations broadcast deals wind up. Because rugby, as Lord Darlington said of cynics in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, seems to understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

The game, as former Wales international Gareth Davies said recently, is at a crossroads. The only certainty is that, whatever exit it decides to take, there will one day be a pay-per-view broadcasting facility somewhere at the end of it and it seems inevitable that the Six Nations will be another of those jewels to be locked away within its vaults.

The Broadcasting Act 2009 does allow the Irish government to designate certain sporting and cultural events to be of major importance to society and make them freely available on television. But attempts by then Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan to add the Six Nations (and the Heineken Cup) to the list were stymied in 2010.

The IRFU lobbied furiously against the move, arguing — correctly, it must be said — that to do so would cut them off at the knees when negotiating future TV rights deals if they couldn’t leverage the pay-per-view broadcasters against those providing free-to-air. As it stands, the only stipulation under Irish law is that the Six Nations must be available free-to-air via deferred coverage.

So Saturday nights in February and March will eventually change.

Who pushes that button is the known unknown. The Six Nations unions were already examining how to build their collective bargaining power with TV when word dropped that the private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, was sniffing around in the hope they could purchase a 30% investment in the competition for the return of £100m for each of the unions. 

With a 27% stake in the English Premiership already secured, and talks of a similar land grab doing the rounds in terms of the PRO14, CVC want to get their claws into rugby union in much the same way they did with Formula 1, which it owned and ran for a decade before selling up at a massive profit in 2017.

Some of the commentary around the firm’s time in F1 makes the blood run cold. Giles Richards wrote a piece in the Guardian last September which described CVC’s offer to the English league as a “a hospital pass” that they should ignore. Richards also quoted Bob Fernley, the team principal of Force India, who accused CVC of “raping the sport”.

Among the worrying policies adopted — there are too many to list here — was the swerve the sport took away from free-to-air to pay-per-view. Though a worldwide sport with a fanatical fan base, it was estimated F1’s global audience has fallen by 137m since 2010. But then, that isn’t really a surprise to anyone, is it?

Add in World Rugby’s plans to bring about a global league under one all-encompassing TV deal and the picture for rugby is complicated but, with broadcasters calling the shots, and private equity firms looking to make profits from a sector that has always been a drain rather than a river of money, the bottom line is that us regular schmos will be the ones to pay. Sooner or later.

Email: brendan.obrien@ examiner.ie Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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