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BBC and ITV make last-ditch bid to keep Six Nations safe from paywall

Manu Tuilagi - Six Nations

The Six Nations have been presented with a new bid in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the annual tournament disappearing from free-to-air television.

BBC and ITV have made a joint move amid renewed calls for the Government to intervene and upgrade the 15-match championship to Category A status, thereby saving it from ending up behind a satellite paywall.

Emboldened by public outrage following The Rugby Paper’s revelation of Sky Sports sitting in pole position to win exclusive broadcasting rights from next year, the offer to renew BBC/ITV coverage until 2024 leaves the national Unions running the Six Nations Rugby Council grappling with the 64 million dollar question: “Stay as we are or sell to the highest bidder?”

They have wrapped all Test matches involving Europe’s six Tier One countries into one bumper package of around 100 internationals per year which they value at a minimum of £300m over the three-year period of the new deal.

Their decision to prohibit joint bids increased suspicions within BBC and ITV that the path was being cleared for Sky once the current agreement expires this time next year. BBC and ITV navigated their way round the obstacle before the deadline for bidding ran out five days ago.

“We’re pleased that in response to our letters, Six Nations has confirmed that joint bids from broadcasters are now being considered,’’ said Julian Knight, chair of the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee. “When we put this to Lord Hall (BBC director general) he confirmed that the BBC had put in a joint bid that would involve a sub-licence with ITV.’’

At a hearing of the DCMS committee on Friday, Hall said: “It would be dreadful if it (the Six Nations) disappeared behind a paywall. I think it is one of those events that brings us all together.’’

He has also been reported as admitting that despite their fight to keep the tournament on free-to-air television “it probably won’t”.

BBC and ITV saw Sky off when the contract was last up for grabs four years ago.

“That was then and this is now,’’ one industry source told The Rugby Paper. “Attitudes have changed. With some of the unions, it’s all about money and nothing but money.’’

The Six Nations, distracted by the more pressing issue of how best to finish an incomplete championship, are likely to delay a decision on the television issue.  The bidding process could go into a second round.

Barry Hearn, one of Britain’s foremost sports promoters of major events as chairman of Matchroom Sport, told The Rugby Paper: “As in any market, competition keeps everyone on their toes but you have to be realistic. In sport today, it’s almost inevitable that the best price wins.

“BBC and ITV have limits. Paywall television, whether it’s Sky or a sports streaming service, doesn’t have the same limits. The world has changed, how people watch sport has changed and a paywall is just another example of that.

“The kids of today aren’t watching TV on the sofa with mum and dad as we did.  They access their sport on a tablet. It’s an entirely different market and sport can get to a wider audience away from the basic old-school television.

“I think BBC and ITV do a great job but I don’t think sport going to satellite television is as damaging as some people make out. Sport as we used to know it has changed for ever. It’s not like Del Boy and Rodney flogging a 1964 Ford Anglia.

Six Nations
Crowning moments: England lift the Triple Crown live on ITV after beating Wales at Twickenham. Getty Images

“I think it’s inevitable that free-to-air television will lose more and more events, especially without the protection of being on the Government’s Category A listing. If you don’t have that protection, it’s a free for all.

“Sky may be favourites to get the Six Nations but I don’t think they are necessarily a shoe-in. You’ve got companies like DAZN, a sports streaming service operating on a global scale who see themselves as the Netflix of sport.

“Neither ITV nor BBC can compete separately with Sky but together there may be a better chance. It’s a case of united we stand, divided we fall. I really don’t understand why the Six Nations have ruled out joint bids.’’

Renewed attempts are also being made to put the Six Nations in the top category of listed events alongside Wimbledon, the Grand National, the FA Cup final, football and rugby World Cup finals, guaranteeing it free-to-air coverage.

The DCMS chair Knight said: “We welcome the BBC’s acknowledgement and thanks for the role this committee has played in the debate, including the step we have taken to formally request the DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden considers moving the Six Nations from Category B to Category A of listed sports.

“Such a move would ensure the championship remains available via free-to-air channels. We await his response.’’

PETER JACKSON

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