A Welsh rugby player kicks a ball.

A Welsh rugby player kicks a ball.

Kicked into touch: Six Nations rugby broadcasting rights

Published 08/07/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

On 10 July 2024 the Senedd will debate the Culture, Welsh Language, Communications, Sport and International Relations Committee’s report, 6 Nations Rugby Championship broadcasting rights.

The Senedd, the Senedd’s Culture Committee, the Welsh Government and the previous House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee have all called for extra protection for Six Nations rugby matches so viewers in Wales can watch them on free-to-air television. These calls were rejected by the previous UK Government, who have responsibility for broadcasting regulation.

What protection do sports broadcasting rights have?

The Broadcasting Act 1996, as amended by the Media Act 2024, gives the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport the power to draw up a list of sporting events of “national interest”. This means the broadcast rights to these events must be offered to public service broadcasters (PSBs) on “fair and reasonable terms”.

Listing does not mean that an event has to be shown on free-to-air television. It just means that if the rights-holders offer the rights for sale they have to give PSBs first-refusal to bid for them on “fair and reasonable terms”.

There are two groups of listed events:

  • Group A events have full live-coverage protected, and include the football European Championships, the Olympics and Wimbledon.
  • Group B events just have “secondary coverage” (edited highlights or delayed coverage) protected, and include Six Nations rugby matches involving home nations.

Cash-strapped PSBs face global competition with deep pockets

A perfect-storm of market dynamics have led to an increasing number of sporting events that used to be available to TV licence-fee payers going behind a paywall.

PSBs face budget constraints, whether from long-term cuts to the licence fee or a downturn in the advertising market, which are compounded by production cost inflation. The value of rights has increased with the entrance to the market of global streaming services with deep pockets.

In 2021, the BBC and S4C lost the live broadcast rights for the rugby Autumn Internationals, which were available on subscription-service Amazon Prime. In September 2023, it was widely reported, following comments made by World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin, that future Rugby World Cup matches may also go behind a paywall.

In May 2021, Six Nations organisers agreed an in-principle deal for the BBC and ITV to continue coverage of rugby tournaments. The four-year deal runs from 2022 to the end of the 2025 edition of the tournament, which has been free-to-air since 2003 (there was a five-year period, 1997-2002, prior to this when England home matches were broadcast on Sky Sports).

Rugby remains distinctively popular in Wales. It is the only UK nation to have any rugby games appear in its top 10 of most-watched programmes in 2022. As in 2021, the Wales v France Six Nations Rugby, broadcast on BBC One, was the most-viewed programme in Wales for the year, with an average audience of 652,000.

BBC Director General Tim Davie told the Senedd’s Culture Committee that he was a “vociferous proponent of listed events”. Though the BBC has a “limited budget”, he said “we need no convincing at the BBC across all the senior team about the value of rugby in this nation”.

“A devastating impact on the whole of the game in Wales”

The previous UK Government consistently said it did not intend to increase protection for the Six Nations broadcasting rights. It said:

The current list of events works well to deliver the best outcome and that it strikes an appropriate balance and therefore we have no plans to undertake a full review of the list.

But when the Senedd’s Culture Committee spoke to then Minister of State for Media, Tourism and Creative Industries, the Right Honourable Sir John Whittingdale OBE MP in October 2023 he had a more nuanced position.

“If the Welsh Parliament argued very strongly that, for the good of sport in Wales, we needed to look again at the listed events”, he said, “we would look at it, certainly”.

The Committee decided to explore the question of whether the Six Nations should become a Group A listed event by speaking to the WRU and rugby and broadcasting experts in February 2024.

The WRU argued strongly against the move, saying that increased protection “could have a devastating impact on the whole of the game in Wales”. Media rights, they said, made up £20m of their £90m total annual revenue.

The WRU did not say that they wanted Six Nations rights, which are negotiated centrally by Six Nations Rugby Limited, to go behind a paywall. But keeping this option on the table was important, they felt, for increasing the value of bids and maximising the income that was ultimately used to fund the game.

The financial challenges faced by the WRU are longstanding. The Oakwell Sports Advisory report, which was commissioned by the WRU in 2022 and is not in the public domain, reportedly predicted a £7m deficit for Welsh rugby in 2023, which would double by 2025. Recent reports suggest the Union has an annual deficit of £15m as it struggles to pay off £24m of debt, largely blamed on Covid. A £35m funding gap for the regions over the next five years puts the future of all four regions in doubt.

WRU Chair Richard Collier-Keywood told the Culture Committee that the Union “cannot continue to finance the regions at that same level, as we did before, unless we become commercially more successful”. Increased commercial success would not seem to be helped by reducing the value of one of the organisations most valuable assets – its media rights.

A “finely balanced decision”

In April 2024, the Culture Committee concluded that the Six Nations Rugby Championship should move from being a Group B to a Group A listed event. This followed similar recommendations from the previous House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee in October 2023, and the Senedd, which in January 2024 agreed a Conservative motion proposing that the Senedd “calls on the UK Government to include Welsh six nations rugby games in the free-to-air category for broadcasting purposes”.

The Welsh Government agreed with the Culture Committee, and had previously written to the UK Government calling for extra protection for the Six Nations and a “review of the listed events in recognition of the position in Wales”.

The Culture Committee called its decision “finely balanced”, noting “how valuable an income stream broadcasting rights are for the WRU”. But ultimately it concluded that “these vitally important considerations still do not outweigh the place that rugby has in our cultural life”. Preserving the ability for licence-fee payers to watch their national game for free was more important, it felt, than maximising the WRU’s revenue.

Though Welsh politicians have been clear that they want to see greater protection for Six Nations matches on free-to-air television, this issue was kicked into touch by the previous UK Government. With a recent change in Westminster administration, is it time to convert these calls into action?

Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament