With the huge announcement that the BBC and ITV were to share the broadcasting rights for the Six Nations, Head of Media and Sport at Capital Law, Sion Clwyd Roberts, dissects the deal and speculates where the next big rights deals will go

If you heard a low rumbling noise last Thursday, it may well have been a collective sigh of relief from armchair rugby fans across the country. You’ve no doubt heard that the Six Nations is set to remain free-to-view, as BBC and ITV’s joint bid for the broadcasting rights was successful.

The competition’s organisers had been openly courting subscription broadcasters Sky and BT Sport, leading to speculation that the much-loved competition would only be viewable to fans able to stump up increasingly high prices for premium TV sports packages.

It took an unprecedented alliance between the two rival terrestrial broadcasters in rugby – BBC and ITV share the rights to the World Cup and the European Championships – to win the day. As a result, in a six-year deal, from 2016 onwards the 15 RBS Six Nations games will be split between BBC and ITV for the first time.

You only need to think back to the emotional rollercoaster that was the final day of this year’s competition in March to see why this is such a heartening move – not just for avid rugby fans, but the millions of casual viewers drawn in by the drama each and every year.

Well, if it works for Europe…


Shared rights: Toulon won the inaugural Champions Cup in a game shown by BT Sport and Sky Sports

While it may appear odd for rivals to jointly bid for these rights, in this new world order, it makes a lot of sense to both broadcasters. And rugby fans know that co-operation between rivals can lead to success – just look at the burgeoning Champions Cup.

Firstly, it saves a considerable amount of money for the BBC, particularly in a week that has seen Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne raid a fifth of the BBC’s entire income (about £650m) to fund free television licences for those over 75. It also helps save face for a corporation who have owned the Six Nations broadcast rights for as long as most people can remember.

However, arguably the biggest winners from this auction are ITV. They can now add the Six Nations to their Rugby World Cup coverage and claim to be the home of international rugby, targeting those key ABC1 viewers who aspire to relax in the Twickers’ West Car Park sipping champagne – it will be a delight to sell sponsorship and advertising for matches, all kindly promoted by the BBC.

Changing channels: ITV will show Six Nations matches from the Aviva Stadium (Photo: Inpho)

Changing channels: ITV will show Six Nations matches from the Aviva Stadium (Photo: Inpho)

The World Cup: shiny but not a ‘crown jewel’ (legally speaking)

Major sporting events in the UK are split into two tiers; Tier A and Tier B. The Tier A sporting events are known as the ‘crown jewels’; meaning that they must be shown live on terrestrial television channels like BBC or ITV. The Wimbledon tennis championship, the football World Cup, and the Olympic Games are all ‘crown jewels’. However, in terms of the Rugby World Cup, it is only the final that is protected.

Tier B competitions are available to subscription broadcasters with a requirement to make the highlights available on terrestrial television – think Test match cricket, which is live and exclusive on Sky with highlights only on Channel 5. Conceivably therefore Sky (or BT Sport) could bid for exclusive Rugby World Cup live coverage with highlights on Channel 5, as long as the final was transmitted simultaneously on Sky and Channel 5 to meet the Tier A criteria for the final itself.

Is the Sky the limit?

Commercially, it would make sense for Sky to invest in acquiring the Rugby World Cup – Sky gaining exclusive rights to the Lions’ tour is testament to their ability to monetize rugby union coverage and reach a potential new audience of subscribers. It is a deal that World Rugby would be minded to do if the price is right, and the world’s rugby governing bodies would endorse close such a move, for the greater good of the game globally.

Up for the cup? Could a future World Cup semi-final be live on Sky? (Photo: Getty Images)

Up for the Cup: Could a future World Cup semi-final be live on Sky? (Photo: Getty Images)

The new Six Nations rights deal has highlighted the benefits to the organisers of being Tier B tournament. The tournament’s negotiators can play broadcasters against one another and thereby maximise revenues. Being a Tier A competition limits the market to free-to-air broadcasters only, for which there are only two real players – the BBC and ITV. In sporting parlance, the Six Nations’ committee played a blinder – managing to squeeze the maximum amount possible out of two free-to-air broadcasters, while maintaining viewer satisfaction, not disaffecting the core rugby audience and leveraging ITV into the game with the attraction of cashing in on the lucrative England home matches.

My prediction is that Sky could hit back when the Rugby World Cup rights become available. Politicians will not want to upset the applecart by promoting the entire tournament into Tier A, which will disrupt the market. The rugby viewing public will be baffled as to quite how the jewel in the rugby crown may be lost to pay-TV companies, while football and tennis fans remain unaffected.

Sion Clwyd Roberts is Head of Media and Sport at Cardiff and London based law firm, Capital Law www.capitallaw.co.uk