TV appetite for Six Nations rugby grows and grows

Two weeks since the last round of Six Nations games and Ireland’s annihilation of Italy in Rome all but ensured that the vacuum would be at least partly filled by the sort of big picture debate that is only ever held in the absence of any live distractions.

With Georgia starting their search for a seventh straight tier two European title with another win that very same day, it was no effort for journalists and pundits to join the dots and call for an opening of the borders that would usher the Eastern Europeans in.

No deal.

Six Nations CEO John Feehan drowned out the growing chorus last Tuesday with his assertion that the competition remains a “closed” one and, though difficult to swallow from a sporting perspective, the Six Nations know the numbers add up as things stand.

UEFA unveiled a study last month showing that, with an average of 72,000 fans taking in each game, the European rugby tournament had outdone the NFL and FIFA’s World Cup to claim the honour of the “best-attended sporting event in the world”.

Figures released to less hoopla last Monday only enhanced that sense of rude health. 

A TV audience of 53 million has taken in the opening two rounds of this year’s event. 

That’s just within the boundaries of the half-dozen competing nations but it’s a figure that can only be properly comprehended by the fact that it is up eight million from 2016.

“It’s fantastic,” says Feehan, “but when the year is up it may come back a little bit. Who knows?”

Predicting TV trends is a fickle business but Feehan gives the credit to the competitiveness of this year’s competition - Italy aside - as well as the addition of bonus points and the digital media offering surrounding the games for the bump in eyeballs.

Though Feehan neglected to dig down too deep into the figures, he did say that somewhere in the region of 24 million have tuned into the six games in the UK alone while the French audience for their defeat of Scotland in round two hit 5.2m.

“One of the really encouraging things about the growth of the television audience is that we have a very solid TV basis in France the last three or four years,” said Feehan who doubles up as CEO of the British and Irish Lions. “And that has been at a time when they haven’t had an awful lot to shout about. Now that they are beginning to show signs of the giant awakening again, their television audiences are beginning to respond.”

The really interesting storyline has been unfolding across the channel. 

Beset by budget crises, specifically the need to shave £700m from the operating bill, the BBC invited ITV in to share their existing Six Nations rights back in 2015. 

That unlikely alliance was ultimately strong enough to stave off the advances of Sky when the 2018-2021 contract came up for expressions of interest and the various subscriber channels were invited in to sit around the table for the very first time.

Sky offered more but not enough to prise the competition away from the grasp of terrestrial TV where, a five-year stint in the late 1990s aside when England’s home games were with Rupert Murdoch’s organisation, the tournament has always resided. That new landscape suits just fine.

“It’s had a great effect in the sense that you now have the two main terrestrial broadcasters pumping out positive messages about the championship, promotional material and integrating it across all its platforms so the reach has never been higher within the UK.

“The reach after two rounds is just phenomenal. There is nothing else doing that at this stage.”

The presence of the Six Nations on so-called free-to-air TV is an anachronism in an age when more and more live sport is being walled off behind subscription packages and viewership figures have slumped in direct contrast to soaring bids for rights package.

Cricket remains the cautionary tale. Over 8m people in the UK watched the last day of the 2005 Ashes test on Channel 4. 

By the final test ten years later, the number had plummeted to 467,000. Not just that but participation numbers slumped among people aged over 16 by 32%.

“We have been on terrestrial for decades and, certainly for the next four years, we know where we are going,” said Feehan. “We have no particular ambition to do anything other than be on terrestrial but we have got to have a competitive environment in which to drive the values.”

Playing the Beebs and ITVs off against the Skys and BTs is the only means of achieving that, although their hands remain partially tied by government legislation in the various territories that protects sporting treasures.

The Six Nations is an A-listed event in France so must be screened live for a terrestrial audience. 

In Ireland and the UK, it is afforded a B-list grading which means that, while it has to be shown on terrestrial, it doesn’t have to be live. 

It’s a delicate ecosystem of interlinked needs and benefits. The Irish legislation, for instance, comes up for review once every three years and a tweak in the TV rules and guidelines in this little pond could have a ripple effect in future negotiations across the continent.

For now, though, it’s steady as she goes.

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