The Six Nations Championship is considered by many to be rugby’s greatest competition. England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales battle it out over seven weeks to effectively become the champions of Europe. Each year the tournament generates substantial viewing figures as fans flock to television screens to watch the sporting drama. In total across the 2023 edition of the competition, an estimated 121 million people watched the Championship.

The format of the tournament involves each team facing each other once – a total of 15 matches – with home-ground advantage alternating from one year to the next. The competition brings together some of the best players in world rugby and unites nations that have established historic rivalries over centuries. The tournament’s prestige and popularity have benefited significantly from being on free-to-air television, allowing the UK public to easily watch each captivating fixture.

The current UK media rights agreements run until 2025 and the next UK deal could well bring an end to the competition’s historical bond with free-to-air broadcast partners and begin a new media chapter for the tournament as it goes behind a paywall.

In November 2023, it was ruled by the UK government that the Six Nations Championship would not be added to the ‘Crown Jewels’ list of sporting events that can only be shown live on free-to-air television. MPs on the Welsh Affairs Committee argued that live sports broadcasting “should strive to reach the widest possible audience”. However, the committee’s plea was rejected by government ministers.

A spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) said: “We believe the current list strikes an appropriate balance, with protections in place for highlights of the Six Nations tournament and live coverage of the Rugby World Cup final, and therefore have no plans to amend the regime.” The spokesperson also mentioned, “our goal is to ensure events of national interest are free-to-air wherever possible while protecting competition organizers’ ability to raise income from the sale of broadcast rights to invest in their sports.”

Former England captain Owen Farrell said that the prospect of the tournament moving away from free-to-air television would be a “real challenge” for rugby, as it would be a big test to maintain its large audience if the competition went behind a paywall. On the contrary, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) said the federation would “struggle to survive” if the competition remained as a free-to-air TV event.

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Speaking to the Welsh Parliament’s Culture and Sport Committee, newly appointed WRU chief executive Abi Tierney emphasized that the current media rights income for the union is roughly $25.2 million a year, a figure which is far too low to bring long-term financial stability to the WRU.

With the Six Nations Championship being such a popular sporting competition across the UK a potential move to pay-TV is likely to kick off a bidding war from networks including Sky Sports, TNT Sports, Amazon, and potentially Netflix. What would almost certainly drive up the value of the media rights for the competition would be if the Six Nations Championship and the recently announced new ‘World League’, which is estimated to begin in 2026, were to sell their next media rights deal as a joint package. With there being an improved long-term structure of international rugby, rights holder would be in a better position to align their media rights deals and sign longer-term agreements with broadcasters.

With sports fans increasingly likely to stream live sport the Six Nations could well end up negotiating their next media rights package with a streaming service. The competition has already established a relationship with Netflix having recently released a new behind-the-scenes documentary series with the American subscription video streaming service.

For comparison, Netflix has recently agreed a groundbreaking global partnership with WWE to become the exclusive new home of WWE Raw. Outside of the USA, Netflix will also be the dedicated broadcaster of WWE’s Friday Night Smackdown and NXT weekly shows. This has highlighted to others in the sporting industry that the streaming service over the next few years may well be focusing more on growing their live sports coverage. With Netflix having begun a relationship with the Six Nations Championship a future lucrative media rights agreement could well be in the pipeline, as the Six Nations looks to generate much-needed income for the future financial stability of the federations involved. Amazon Prime will undoubtedly be another platform contemplating a potential bid to capture the Six Nations’ rights. Having agreed rugby media deals to sponsor both the Summer Nations Series and the Autumn Nations Series, adding the Six Nations Championship would be a significant addition to the platform’s live sports offering.

A potential global distribution media agreement would allow the Six Nations to reach growing sports markets especially North America more easily, which World Rugby hopes to break into with the help of the United States hosting the 2031 and 2033 women’s and men’s Rugby World Cups. The sixth edition of the United States professional league, Major League Rugby, saw an 18% increase in match attendance in 2023, with an average of 2,600 more spectators at matches. The league also reported a 70% rise in subscribers for their digital media platform Rugby Network, with more than 170,000 new subscribers. This positive data provides evidence that the game is growing in the United States and highlights how a major global media deal could be crucial in continuing the sport’s growth in the world’s biggest sports market.

To conclude, the decision the Six Nations will make on whether to move to a pay-TV format could have huge consequences on the tournament’s popularity in the United Kingdom as millions of people rely on free TV to watch live sports. Moving away from the free-TV format could prevent younger generations from being exposed to the sport if children’s parents do not have access to watch Six Nations matches. They are then unlikely to take an interest in the sport so grassroots rugby participation could be affected.

In the end, with rugby being excluded from joining the UK government’s ‘Crown Jewel’ list and the tournament decision makers having big commercial plans for the Six Nations, the competition will likely move to the pay-TV format, the main question perhaps being how quickly that will be. This move would likely provide much-needed finances to rugby stakeholders who are still suffering from the financial hit that they took during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Six Nations Championship will be relying on the competition’s reputation to attract fans to pay-TV to continue to follow the drama of future Six Nations Championships.