The BBC may no longer be able to retain its share of the Six Nations as broadcast rights costs soar and its revenues fall, its outgoing sporting director has warned MPs.
Barbara Slater told the culture, media and sport select committee that “incredibly difficult” decisions had to be made as sports rights had more than doubled in the last decade while BBC revenues had fallen by 30% in real terms.
The tournament is traditionally broadcast free of charge in the UK, but is not one of the protected listed events such as the Men’s and Women’s World Cups, the Olympics and Wimbledon.
Recent reports also suggest that the creation of a new world league could result in the rugby television rights being sold in bulk, which could put them even further out of the reach of the BBC.
Slater admitted that the financial pressure on the company was increasing in the sports sector. “We need a well-funded BBC if we can continue to afford sports rights,” she told MPs. “Sports rights in the UK have more than doubled in the last decade. The BBC’s real revenue has fallen by 30 per cent. It is incredibly difficult for the BBC to meet the expectations of these governing bodies across a range of sports.”
Pressed by MP John Nicolson, she added: “As with everything, we need to assess the affordability of the Six Nations at this time. Because with this income trend it is very difficult for the BBC to continue to afford everything we have. The truth is we are unlikely to be the highest bidder and it will be up to individual governing bodies how they balance that reach and revenue.”
Asked whether there were real fears that the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup could be lost from terrestrial television, Niall Sloane, ITV’s director of sport, said: “I don’t think we’ve ever done a deal where There was no speculation.”, and there was probably reasonable speculation that all or part of it could go to a paid operator.
“But that’s less the case with the Rugby World Cup because we’ve only done two deals in my time at ITV,” he added. “I think they recognize that something like the Rugby World Cup should be free-to-air if you want to grow the game, but there is no guarantee of that.”
Meanwhile, Slater, who will retire from the BBC in the spring, also called for the 3pm ban on broadcasting football matches in the UK on Saturday to be lifted in order to show women’s games.
“It is no coincidence that our crowd for the Chelsea v Liverpool game on Saturday was a record-breaking WSL crowd,” she said. “It is very logical that it is this Saturday afternoon slot. That doesn’t have to be the case. But I think it would be wonderful to see football come together and do this.”