BBC chief sanctions ‘critical’ bid with ITV to keep Six Nations on free-to-air TV as Sky and BT Sport both chase more rugby coverage with organisers hoping to land £150m-a-year deal
- BBC’s director general has joined battle to keep Six Nations on free-to-air TV
- Exclusive contract with terrestrial broadcasters ended after weekend’s action
- Fears that annual tournament could move behind a paywall has sparked move
- BBC and ITV preparing joint offer with Sky Sports and BT Sport also interested
The BBC director general has intervened in an ‘utterly critical’ move and signed off an improved bid to keep the Six Nations on free-to-air TV.
Last night’s dramatic round of fixtures marked the end of the Six Nations’ exclusive contract with terrestrial broadcasters — and there are fears rugby’s showpiece tournament could now move behind a paywall.
The bidding process for future rights closes tomorrow and The Mail on Sunday understands the BBC and ITV are preparing a bullish joint offer for the box office tournament. There have been widespread fears that the BBC will be outbid for the rights, with rugby’s powerbrokers understood to be seeking an uplift from £90million to £150m per year.
The BBC director general has signed off an improved bid to try to win the Six Nations rights
There are fears the tournament could move behind a paywall with current contract expiring
Amazon Prime is widely regarded as the bidder with the most financial clout, however their interest is understood to have cooled. Unlike the autumn internationals, the timing of the Six Nations does not fit neatly with Amazon’s seasonal marketing strategies, while the asking price is significantly higher than other sporting properties. Sky Sports and BT Sport are interested in expanding their rugby holdings, while Channel 4 are also in the market for additional coverage.
But the BBC’s new director general, Tim Davie who took over last year, is keen to increase their live sport holdings.
Davie has stressed the importance to colleagues of holding on to rugby’s trophy asset and is ready to sign off a significantly improved joint offer, alongside ITV.
Amazon Prime showed Autumn Nations Cup but is less interested in broadcasting Six Nations
Joint bids were blocked at the start of the tender process last year, although that is no longer the case.
Tender documents have been sent to potential bidders, understood to be proposing a shortened two-year term due to market uncertainty caused by Covid-19.
The Six Nations board are under intense public pressure not to take the competition behind a paywall, at the expense of the struggling sport’s visibility to a nationwide audience.
Scotland’s win over England attracted 8.4 million viewers on opening weekend of Six Nations
Viewing figures for this year’s competition peaked at 8.4million during Scotland’s victory over England — a staggering 17 times bigger than the number of viewers who tuned into the Premiership final on BT Sport.
In meeting minutes seen by The Mail on Sunday, Davie said: ‘We’re trying to protect sports investment. The Six Nations… 64 per cent of the whole Welsh population were watching that game. Now, we’re having to play it smart, so sharing with ITV… ensuring that we can be competitive.
England’s Calcutta Cup defeat at Twickenham on the opening Six Nations weekend drew a peak audience of over 8.4million, the highest for the championship.
Even England’s lowest-viewed game — against Italy — had more viewers than Sky’s record-breaking Premier League figure of 4.5m for the Liverpool-Manchester United match in January.
‘There are big pay providers out there, but it’s utterly critical in my mind. There is a limit to our budget but it is utterly critical we protect things like that, because that’s where audiences get value from the BBC. So, that is of priority importance, that we can bring those big events.’
The Government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee had a proposal to guarantee the tournament’s free-to-air status rejected last year.
There are fears that a move away from terrestrial TV would cost future generations of fans, with World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson recently claiming such a move would be ‘disastrous’. Private equity firm CVC are helping to guide the Six Nations’ commercial strategy, having recently paid £365m for a 14.3 per cent share in the event.
Even if the BBC and ITV cannot match their rivals’ bids, CVC will also factor in the boost on sponsorship revenues from having the sport on the biggest stage.
A Six Nations spokesperson told The Mail on Sunday last night: ‘Discussions will start next week with interested broadcasters. No further comments will be made.’
Martin Johnson believes that having the tournament behind a paywall would be a disaster
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