Any lucractive overtures to switch to pay-TV broadcasters should be resisted by World Rugby's power brokers
Rugby is in the midst of a gold rush. A year after the Six Nations was saved from the clutches of pay-TV broadcasters by a joint bid from the BBC and ITV, it’s the turn of World Rugby to flutter its eyelashes during the tender process for the 2019 World Cup broadcasting rights. There are no guarantees ITV, its UK broadcaster since 1991, will get first dibs.
Plumping for a more lucrative deal from subscription broadcasters may seem like the answer, the ‘sell’ being more money to invest in grass-roots rugby and Tier Two nations across the world. After all, that is World Rugby’s remit and 90% of its revenue is raised at the quadrennial tournament. But in the UK, rugby’s most mature market, you would lose the mass scale of free-to-air television.
The England v Wales humdinger at RWC 2015 was the UK’s most viewed rugby match since the 2007 World Cup final, with an audience of 11.5m, and the tournament as a whole was the most viewed in history.
To my mind, television is still the medium that aspiring rugby players respond to best. I coach at Hitchin RFC and to be able to show a bunch of eight-year-old sponges how to draw a man by pulling up freely accessible smartphone clips of Johnny Sexton sending team-mate Robbie Henshaw down the wing is instructive.
If you want to look at the perils associated with going down the pay-TV route, look no further than cricket, which was last seen on terrestrial TV during the glorious 2005 Ashes. Participation numbers have plummeted in that sport.
Rugby already has a near-saturated pay-TV rugby market. Super Rugby, the top three domestic leagues in the northern hemisphere and a host of Tests are on Sky and BT. But some competitions should be sacrosanct, otherwise you create an exclusive, elitist sport, out of reach of lower-income families and casual fans.
All kids should have an equal chance to aspire to be the next Dan Carter or Richie McCaw, not be locked on the outside unable to breach TV’s paywall. World Rugby should show restraint; some things are not for sale.
This article appeared in the April edition of Rugby World