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Six Nations refuses to rule out pay-TV future

England face Wales during NatWest Six Nations on February 10, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Six Nations Rugby, organising body of the annual national team tournament, has refused to rule out the possibility that live rights to the championship could go behind a paywall against the backdrop of a proposed investment deal with private equity group CVC Capital Partners.

CVC’s attempts to acquire a stake in the Six Nations were last month reportedly being held up by a disagreement over the championship’s media rights. CVC started an exclusive period of negotiation with Six Nations Rugby last September with a view to acquiring a 15-per-cent stake in the championships for a reported £300m (€345.9m/$383.6m).

As a condition of the deal, CVC is said to want to take control of the tournament’s commercial arm and the right to arrange its next broadcasting deal. Free-to-air broadcasters ITV and BBC share the domestic rights to the Six Nations in the current cycle (2016 to 2021) paying roughly £50m a year. At the time of the deal, the Six Nations Committee preferred the wider coverage offered by the broadcasters ahead of a larger offer from pay-television broadcaster Sky.

The future of the Six Nations’ broadcast rights was thrown into the spotlight over the weekend after the Rugby Paper reported that Sky had become favourites to secure a deal worth £300m which would take the tournament off terrestrial television “until 2024 at the earliest”.

However, the Six Nations has stressed that the bids for broadcast rights going forwards have not yet been lodged.

The Six Nations told The Guardian newspaper: “Six Nations are in the process of seeking bids for various sets of media rights but these are not due for some time.

“All of this is highly premature and speculative as no proposals have yet been received by any interested party. We would not rule anything out at this stage and the unions will collectively review and make a decision based on the nature of the offers received.”

The fact that no joint bids are being allowed in the next round of talks appears to have heightened the possibility of an exclusive live pay-television deal being agreed.

The Six Nations currently sits in Group B of the UK government’s listed sporting events which can be aired live on subscription television provided that secondary coverage (highlights and/or delayed broadcast) is offered to free-to-air broadcasters.

Matches from the competition have aired on Sky before. In 1996, England’s Rugby Football Union signed a controversial five-year agreement worth £87.5m with the pay-television broadcaster for rights to England’s home matches and domestic club rugby. The breakaway deal included rights to England’s then Five Nations matches from 1997 onwards.

This list of protected events was revised in January when the government added the summer and winter Paralympic Games to the ‘crown jewels’ list of sporting events reserved for free-to-air broadcast. Speculation over the Six Nations’ rights have led to calls for its status on the list to be reassessed.

A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokeswoman told the BBC: “Our listed events regime strikes a balance between retaining free-to-air sports events for the public while allowing rights-holders to negotiate agreements in the best interests of their sport. Negotiations on television rights are a matter for the sports authorities and broadcasters.”

The BBC added: “Whilst we wouldn’t comment on the specifics of an ongoing rights negotiation, terrestrial channels have brought unprecedented viewing figures to the Six Nations, ensuring that rugby remains a sport that is very much relevant and enjoyed by as wide an audience as possible and we very much hope that will continue.”

It was reported last month that CVC has a wider strategy of reshaping the sport’s global competition structure. The firm is reported to also be in talks about tie-ups with world governing body World Rugby and national governing bodies New Zealand Rugby and South Africa Rugby.

It is also exploring plans to: Bundle media rights for rugby competitions around the world into a single sales package; to launch an OTT service; for streaming rights deals with digital players such as Amazon; and to launch a ‘Club World Cup’ tournament.