Political battle for Six Nations rights?

Date published: January 29 2015

Six Nations chief executive John Feehan has warned that any decision to add the Championship to the list of protected sports events that must be broadcast live on terrestrial television would be ‘extraordinarily detrimental’ to the sport.

Under current broadcast regulations in the UK, only highlights of the northern hemisphere’s premier international competition have to be shown on a free-to-air channel but Labour are reportedly considering adding the Six Nations to the protected list if they win this year’s election on May 7.

Feehan admits that the Six Nations has benefited from its long-term partnership with terrestrial broadcaster the BBC but is totally against any move that would prevent deep-pocketed pay-per-view broadcasters such as Sky and BT Sport the chance to bid for the rights in the future and also potentially deny the Six Nations Committee millions of pounds in revenue.

“All I can say is that it would be extraordinarily detrimental to our game if any government was to turn round and say you have to have the Six Nations on terrestrial television,” said Feehan, speaking at the official launch of this year’s Championship in London.

“I think we could lose significant levels of revenue because effectively you would not be getting a market price for what is the greatest championship in the world.

“We have a belief in terrestrial broadcasting, we have a belief in free-to-air, but having said that, everyone has to be given an opportunity to at least put their best foot forward and that’s all we are looking for.”

Every Six Nations game has been live on terrestrial television since 2003 when the Championship returned exclusively to the BBC following the end of Sky Sports’ controversial deal with the Rugby Football Union that saw England games broadcast on pay-per-view and the remainder by the corporation.

Sky have reportedly expressed an interest in adding the Six Nations rights to their already extensive rugby portfolio that includes England’s November internationals and June tours, the British & Irish Lions, the European Rugby Champions Cup, the PRO12 and France’s Top 14.

However, it is understood that they failed in their most recent attempt to prise the rights from the BBC back in 2011 when the public-funded broadcaster agreed its latest contract extension that runs until 2017.

But with the BBC having to increasingly pick its battles when it comes to bidding for valuable TV rights, Sky are expected to mount another challenge later this year alongside their efforts to secure the rights to The Open golf championship, another prized asset currently broadcast by the corporation.

“We have an open relationship with all the broadcasters in the UK, from A to Z, because effectively we always keep a dialogue going for a heap of different reasons,” said Feehan.

“But it is right and proper to say that the BBC have been a fantastic partner over many, many years and we would hope, and they have certainly indicated to us, that they would want to be involved in the future.

“But I do think, for genuine reasons that we need to realise whatever value is in the Championship. The BBC have always been very competitive and they should continue to be so but the only way we can guarantee that is if they have to challenge in an open and fair market.”

By Graham Jenkins