Amazon and Rugby

Amazon and Rugby

This weekend the hastily arranged Autumn Nations Cup competition kicks off, with eight European nations playing each other in two pools initially before a finals weekend determines the winner.

The competition is there to replace the usual Autumn internationals made up of southern hemisphere sides playing a series of big games in Europe. I’m sure it’s no bad thing that rugby union has managed to create a tournament to keep fans engage, and perhaps more importantly from their perspective, keep revenues flowing.

Normally the TV rights for these games are spread out a bit. For quite a few years now, Sky has held the rights to England home internationals during the autumn, while the BBC has also held rights to some other Home Nations games. But this year Amazon has come in and picked up nearly everything.

While some games are shared either with Welsh broadcaster S4C or Channel 4, with the latter having a couple of games exclusively, Amazon has the lions’ share – no pun intended.

Amazon will, of course, make the games available to their Prime members, as they have with their limited number of December Premier League games, and the bulk of men’s tennis across the year.

Next year, the Six Nations will be back on the BBC and ITV, but at that point the existing contracts expire, and new deals are being sought. Amazon seems a likely bidder.

But will that be for the good of the game?

Ofcom estimates that as of Q1 2020, Amazon Prime Video was in 7.9m homes. By way of comparison, Ofcom estimates that there are 13.0m Netflix homes, and the ONS says there are 27.8m households in the UK most of whom have access either via TV or digital device, to TV services.

Data warning: I’m now going to compare data from two different sources!

So something like 28% of the population would be able to watch games on Amazon Prime compared with nearly 100% if they were on free-to-air TV.

Would it be sensible for rugby union to take its UK showpiece behind a paywall? I’d argue not. But that didn’t stop cricket, F1 or many other sports.

Six Nations fixtures can get very decent sized audiences. For example, France v England back in February this year got 5.2m on a Sunday afternoon.

Like most sports, rugby union is hurting. They can’t get crowds in to bring in important matchday revenues, and the schedules are constantly being ripped up and changed to accommodate Covid-necessitated changes.

But set against all this is the much anticipated investment from CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm, who are reported to be investing £300m into the Six Nations, in return of a share (said to be 14%) of the tournament.

CVC previously owned Formula One, and not everyone involved thinks that was a great marriage.

The deal with CVC has now been held up due to the potential need of each of the rugby unions to return Covid-related bailout cash taken from the Government if they were suddenly to be given a massive cash injection from a private equity firm. You can’t plead poverty with one hand, while being give bundles of cash in the other. However, should the deal go ahead, you can expect CVC to be seeking a return on its investment.

Back to any putative Amazon deal. I’m not convinced that Amazon’s coverage of men’s tennis in the UK has been totally healthy. While Wimbledon (on the BBC) and the French Open (on ITV) remain free-to-air, it feels as though the sport is disappearing a little bit. Tennis super-fans will have followed it to Amazon, much as they might have with Eurosport or Sky Sports previously. But tennis always feels a bit “lost” in Amazon’s cluttered Prime Video navigation.

As with tennis, rugby union is an “upmarket” sport. Look at all those financial institutions that sponsor the game if you don’t believe me. From Amazon’s perspective, they’d definitely have access to a more upmarket part of the sports landscape with tennis and rugby in their armoury.

And I don’t doubt that Amazon would do an excellent job. They’ve invested a lot in streaming infrastructure in the UK to allow them to show the Premier League and tennis, while employing pedigree production companies and presenters for their coverage.

[As a sidenote, I would add that I don’t think their apps are particularly suited to live sport – making you go through layers of menus before you can get to a live tennis match for example. But then their app needs a top-to-bottom refresh anyway to let it compete better with Netflix. When you find what you want on Amazon, playback is seamless. It’s just getting there that’s hard.]

The Six Nations would become a lesser event behind an Amazon paywall. And would signal the end of much free-to-air rugby union TV coverage, with the exception perhaps of Welsh language coverage on S4C (who are also getting live coverage of Wales’ games in the Autumn Nations Cup), and a light sprinkling of European and domestic club games across Channel 4 and Channel 5.

When you become reliant on private equity firms, you can be certain that they’re looking to maximise profits – usually in the very short term. And they’re not necessarily all that interested in the long-term future of the sport. They may just be in and out over a few years.

ITV has the rights to the 2023 Rugby World Cup, and the final of that competition is required to be aired free-to-air as a Listed Event. However, other matches in the competition as well as all Six Nations fixtures are only required to made available free as highlights. Will ITV hold onto the competition exclusively beyond 2023?

Rugby union should look at parallel sports and choose its future carefully.

This weekend sees the Masters golf take place in Augusta, pushed back from its usual springtime slot in the calendar. Like the Open, this no longer has live free-to-air coverage any more – just highlights late at night on the BBC. Golf has not been having it easy of late. Although the pandemic may have driven a few more players onto courses over this last summer in the UK, there has been a longer term decline in participation. Out of sight; out of mind?

2020 should have been the year that cricket returned to the BBC, and there have been a couple of matches aired free-to-air in this much truncated and revised season, but the controversial 100-ball competition that the ECB devised to get back onto terrestrial TV has been pushed back until next year because of the pandemic. Cricketing authorities having belatedly realised that they need bigger audiences, worked hard to get cricket back out there to a wider viewership.

The Sky money (and production values) have been very welcome, but perhaps the most famous cricketer in the country is best known as a Top Gear presenter. That’s probably not great for the sport.