Thursday, December 3

Six Nations asked to explain plan to move TV rights behind paywall after expressing ‘great concern’

The Six Nations has been asked to explain the bidding process for its next television broadcast rights deal after the “great concern” was expressed by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) at reports the championship will move behind a paywall.

Julian Knight MP, chair of the DCMS Committee, issued a letter to the chief executives of the England, Scotland and Wales unions asking for an explanation into six key points in negotiations, including whether Sky Sports are currently the favourites to secure the rights in a £300m deal.

The move is in response to a furious backlash from rugby fans as well as former players against the plans to move the Six Nations away from its home on terrestrial television, a decision which would echo similar developments in Formula One, golf, cricket and football.

The letter sets out six key questions to Bill Sweeney, Mark Dodson and Martyn Phillips, respective CEOs of the Rugby Football Union, Scottish Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Football Union, which enquires into the bidding process itself, the reported decision to not allow any joint-bids such as the current one between BBC and ITV, and the rumours that Sky Sports are currently favourites to secure a £300m agreement to show the rights from 2022.

The imminent investment from private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, believed to be worth £300m for a 14 per cent share in the Six Nations, is also queried along with how such a move to subscription-based platforms would affect all six unions, as well as the potential to upgrade the championship to Category A status that would protect its terrestrial television position.

A report in The Rugby Paper last weekend claimed that the imminent investment from CVC – who already own a share of the Premiership and Pro14 – will pave the way for the championship to move onto paid-for TV with all six unions clubbing together to sell their rights deals as a bundle.

Current joint-broadcasters BBC and ITV have also reportedly been told that they will not be allowed to tender a similar proposal, which the DCMS Committee has asked for clarity over, though this was disputed in the week. Six Nations chief executive Ben Morel also said that reports that the Sky move was a “done deal” are “highly premature”, with the rights up for renewal after next year’s tournament.

The letter read: “This Committee is appointed under House of Commons’ standing orders to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It also examines the work of associated bodies as well as key developments within the sector. As such, it was a matter of great concern for the Committee to see reports in the media that coverage of Six Nations rugby may, following the outcome of a bidding process, move behind a paywall.

Wales begin their Six Nations title defence against Italy in Cardiff

“The Broadcasting Act 1996 (as amended) aims to make sure that sporting events of national interest are made available to all television viewers. Any shift to transmission via a subscription service would clearly go against the spirit of the listed events approach.

“The Committee requests that you explain clearly the process from here, including responses to the following specific questions:

  1. How will the bidding process work, and according to what timescale?
  2. Currently, television rights are shared between the BBVC and ITV, but press reports suggest that a joint bid may not be allowed when the deal ends in 2021. Are these reports accurate?
  3. It is reported that Sky are favourites to secure the right in 2020, via a £300m deal. Is this accurate?
  4. Have you held any discussion with the DCMS about moving Six Nations from Category B to Category A of listed sporting events, thereby ensuring that live coverage is made available to free-to-air channels?
  5. It is reported that private equity firm CVC are expected to acquire a 15 per cent stake in the tournament with a view to driving up its commercial income. Can you confirm this?
  6. What are the current broadcasting arrangements in each of the participating nations – were the tournament to go behind a paywall, what would be the impact in each of the participating nation?”

Sweeney, Dodson and Phillips have been given a week to respond, with a deadline set for Thursda 12 March to reply to the areas of concern.