Welsh politicians jumping on the Six Nations TV bandwagon is embarrassing

Wales' autumn series matches will be behind a paywall -Credit:Huw Evans Picture Agency
Wales' autumn series matches will be behind a paywall -Credit:Huw Evans Picture Agency

Last week the Senedd’s Sport Committee called for the Six Nations to be put on the protected list, which would prevent it from being put behind a paywall.

“Rugby in Wales plays a unique role in our national life, and in particular the Six Nations, holds a special place for Welsh audiences," said Delyth Jewell MS Chair of the Senedd’s Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport and International Relations Committee. "This was never far from our minds when we made the decision to call for it to be protected as a free-to-air tournament.

“We’ve heard loudly and clearly about the challenges the sport faces in terms of reduced playing numbers in Wales. Concerns have equally been raised with us about the effects of placing the tournament behind a paywall and the impact that could have on playing numbers – we were told that ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it'."

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Ms Jewell is probably coming from a good place but it is clear neither she nor her colleagues in the Senedd fully understand the challenges facing Welsh rugby and, more importantly, how the game they claim to value so much is paid for.

Thankfully, the Senedd have no real power here because broadcasting is not devolved but Jewell and her colleagues have undermined the current CEO of the Welsh Rugby Union Abi Tierney, who is fighting to put Welsh rugby on a far stronger financial footing. The Senedd's stance on this matter is ludicrous, because if the Six Nations was put on the protected list it would ruin its collective bargaining process.

Warren Gatland's side have just finished bottom of the Six Nations for the first time in 21 years, the regions have struggled for a long time, while the progress of Wales Women has stalled at senior level. Now, just because I don't want the Six Nations to be put on the protected list doesn't mean I don't want it to stay on free-to-air TV, because there are consequences to it potentially going behind a paywall.

But what Welsh rugby needs more than anything else at this moment in time is more money. If striking a deal with TNT Sports, Sky or Amazon Prime means Wales can better fund the women's game, ensure all four of its professional sides not only survive but thrive and the development pathway is properly serviced then pushing for it to go behind a paywall would be the right thing to do.

Recently Tierney said that out of the governing body's £90m a year total revenue, circa £20m came from media rights. Speaking before the Welsh Parliament's Culture and Sport Committee in February Tierney also said with less TV revenue the WRU would struggle to survive and would have a "devastating" impact on the game in Wales.

"The health of Welsh rugby relies heavily upon the income generated by its media rights," Tierney quite rightly pointed out. "This funding fuels the investment in the development and grassroots areas of the game and therefore its long-term sustainability.

"Our position is not that Six Nations Championship rugby should be moved away from free-to-air television channels. It is that to place this restriction on rugby would artificially restrict the market for our media rights and significantly diminish our earning potential to devastating effect on our game.

"We need to retain the option to broadcast on subscription services, in order to keep the existing tension in the market. Of course, we do not wish to diminish the reach of our game. To the contrary, we need and want to be seen, but there is a balance to be struck."

By attempting to stop the WRU from negotiating lucrative deals to put games behind a paywall they are preventing Welsh rugby from raising much-needed revenue which could ensure the survival of the game in this country. Welsh rugby is in a dire financial situation, and it was only 14 months ago players were threatening to strike as a result of a hugely damaging stand-off between the governing body and its four professional sides.

There is currently a period of severe austerity being undertaken where the wages of professional players are getting driven down, while playing budgets at the regions are on course to drop to as low as £4.5m next season. Add to this the constant talk of one, at least, professional side going to the wall, along with dwindling interest at grassroots level one would think members of the Senedd would have more important aspects to focus on if it cared so deeply about Welsh rugby.

The Senedd seem to talk about Welsh society as if it was 30 years ago in terms of the cultural significance of the game to the general population. But does that culture still exist in Wales today? I'd wager it doesn't.

While rugby is still very popular in Wales it doesn't quite hold the cultural significance it once did, while much of north Wales couldn't give a damn about it. Also, today's youth consume sport in different ways to what they used to, while the likes of Amazon Prime and TNT Sports are readily available.

Unfortunately, there is a sense of entitlement ingrained into the fabric of Welsh rugby. Many Welsh rugby fans almost think it is a human right to be able to watch the men's national side for free, but everything has to be paid for or the local rugby clubs they drink and socialise in would likely cease to exist.

Also, if it was not available on free-to-air TV the chances are it would push more supporters to attend their local rugby clubs, raising much-needed revenue. Clearly in an ideal world it would be better to keep the Six Nations on free-to-air TV but the WRU's main focus over the next couple of years has to centre around growing revenue streams to ensure the survival and the prosperity of every aspect of the game in Wales.

If pushing for the Six Nations to go behind a paywall is the best way to do that, then so be it.