The BBC’s outgoing director of sport has warned it faces a battle to keep hold of the Six Nations, compounding fears the tournament will not remain entirely free-to-air.
Barbara Slater told MPs it had become increasingly difficult for the corporation to retain the rights to major sporting events, blaming a 30 per cent cut to its income in the past decade and a doubling in the value of broadcast contracts.
Slater’s ITV counterpart, Niall Sloane, admitted his own channel may face a fight to keep hold of exclusive rights to the Rugby World Cup amid concerns it, too, may not remain entirely on terrestrial television.
The last two months have seen Telegraph Sport reveal how both the Six Nations and World Cup could end up, at least in part, behind a paywall, with neither fully protected by law for free-to-air coverage.
And the two executives responsible for ensuring the competitions remain available to the widest possible audience have now sounded the alarm over their respective futures during an appearance before the Culture, Media & Sport select committee.
The BBC and ITV were forced to team up eight years ago to keep the Six Nations out of the clutches of pay-TV and asked about the prospect of losing it, Slater said: “To be clear, we need a well-funded BBC if we are going to be able to continue to afford sports rights.
“Sports rights in the UK have more than doubled in the past decade. BBC’s income in real terms has gone down 30 per cent.”
Slater, who announced in September she would step down in the first half of next year, added: “When we bang on the door for rights, which we want, we have to bring a package that’s about amplification, it’s about using all our platforms. The truth is we’re probably not going to be the highest bidder, and it will come down to individual governing bodies as to how they balance that reach and revenue.
“And I think that’s why we’ve been in so many partnerships. And, indeed, we’re in a partnership with the Six Nations and ITV, who actually have the lion’s share. And I think what we’ve been doing is covering Wales and Scotland because of the importance of the nations to the BBC.
“The Six Nations, like anything, we will have to assess the affordability at the time. Because it is very difficult for the BBC, on that trajectory of income, to continue to afford everything that we have. But that’s not a decision that’s being made at this moment in time.”
Sloane said: “I don’t think we’ve ever done a deal where there wasn’t speculation, and probably well-founded speculation, that it could, in some or in whole, go to a pay operator. Less so with the Rugby World Cup because we’ve only done two deals in my time at ITV. I think they recognise that if you’re going to grow the game, something like the Rugby World Cup should be on free-to-air but there’s no guarantee of it whatsoever.”
He added of the Six Nations: “We would like to bid for that property. It just depends whether they want to sell it to pay television. We discussed this earlier. It was mooted several months ago. But it’s always mooted when there’s negotiations on the horizon. So, we haven’t spoken in earnest. But we will, in the new year, to both entities, Six Nations and Rugby World Cup. But they’ve been great competitions for us in the past and we hope so going forward.”
The key clues in Six Nations’ TV future – and why it could end up behind a paywall
When hunting for clues about the prospect of the Six Nations remaining entirely free to air, look no further than the competition’s choice of chief executive following a change of leadership there earlier this year.
On the one hand, in Tom Harrison’s last job he took live England cricket matches back to terrestrial television for the first time since 2005. On the other, the deals he negotiated also helped pay-TV maintain its stranglehold on the rights to the domestic and international game until 2028.
So while the former England & Wales chief executive’s appointment bodes well for the Six Nations not disappearing behind a paywall in its entirety, do not be surprised if he ends up being the man to loosen terrestrial television’s grip on by far rugby’s biggest and most-watched annual competition.
The same could be said for Alan Gilpin, who was appointed World Rugby chief executive 2½ years ago and who, like Harrison, will soon launch the first broadcast rights auction for his own flagship tournament – the Rugby World Cup – since he took charge.
Unlike Harrison, who has not spoken publicly about Six Nations rights that are up for grabs from 2025, Gilpin has made clear there is no guarantee the World Cup will remain entirely free to air following this year’s tournament.
In an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport during the pool stages of France 2023, Gilpin revealed plans for a radical shake-up for how the event has been both staged and broadcast.
“The starting point is always going to be, ‘Can we make as much of this fantastic competition – in the case of men’s and women’s World Cups – available to the biggest audiences possible?’” he said.
“The secondary consideration to that is, ‘Can we do that in a way that provides the revenues that we need to continue to invest in the growth of the sport?’ So, like any sports event owner, it’s finding that balance – and there is a balance to be found there – across different markets.”
For Harrison, balancing that equation could prove even more of a headache after Telegraph Sport revealed last month that the creation of a new global world league had opened the door for the rights to the Six Nations – and even the likes of the Premiership and Champions Cup – to be sold alongside it.
A decision on which, if any, competitions to bundle together is some way off but ending the Six Nations’ status as a standalone live offering could see much of it, including England matches, moved from free-to-air television.
An ongoing terrestrial presence is expected to be sought given the huge audiences for international rugby, but aggregation would jeopardise the rights-sharing agreement the BBC and ITV struck in 2015 to avoid the tournament being lost to pay TV.
The loss of any of the Six Nations from terrestrial television would risk a backlash, the strength of which may depend on how many Nations Championship games – particularly a new northern-versus-southern hemisphere ‘grand final’ – were made free to air.
By sheer coincidence, the same day as the news of a potential aggregation of rights emerged, a parliamentary select committee publicly stated the Six Nations must remain free-to-air.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the call came from MPs on the Welsh Affairs Committee, after a UK minister had earlier indicated Wales games could be preserved for terrestrial coverage by law if the principality’s parliament formally requested it.
Currently, the only rugby union match that must be shown free to air under so-called ‘crown jewels legislation is the World Cup final and the Culture, Media & Sport select committee previously had a proposal to add the entire Six Nations to the list rejected by the Government.
It was that same committee that heard arguably the gloomiest predictions yet about the free-to-air future of the competition from the BBC’s outgoing director of sport, Barbara Slater. Her ITV counterpart, Niall Sloane, revealed talks over renewing deals for both competitions would begin “in earnest” in the new year.
What neither he nor Slater did, and nor did any of the MPs hearing their evidence, was call for both events to be preserved by law for free-to-air coverage.
That is despite both executives passionately arguing for crown jewels legislation to be brought into the 21st century in order to cover digital rights.
Instead, Slater and Sloane each extolled the virtues of exactly the kind of partnership between terrestrial and pay-TV broadcasters that Harrison helped to pioneer.