Friday, December 25, 2009

Wales’ Six Nations matches to join TV ‘Crown Jewels’

SIX NATIONS rugby matches involving Wales should be broadcast free to air, a top-level report will recommend today.

But while most people in Wales will welcome the news, the WRU fears it could lead to a damaging reduction in revenue that will end its ability to fund the game at the grassroots.

David Davies, the former executive director of the English Football Association, has led an inquiry into whether there should be a change in a list of so-called “Crown Jewels” – sporting events which must be available on free terrestrial TV.

Among the inquiry’s recommendations when the report is published today will be one that, because of the overwhelming interest in Wales’ Six Nations matches – with around seven in 10 households tuning in – they should be put on the Crown Jewels list. The other home nations would not be covered by the ruling because their viewing threshold is not considered high enough.

Currently the list includes such events as the FA Cup Final, the football World Cup and the Olympics. Although Six Nations rugby has not been on the list up to now, the BBC currently holds the contract to broadcast the matches and they are therefore available to all with a TV set.

There have been fears, however, that Sky could win a future contract, forcing people to buy a Sky package if they want to see the matches. The latest contract negotiated between the WRU and the BBC will begin next year and run until 2013. After that, if Wales’ Six Nations matches are added to the Crown Jewels list, Sky would be excluded from the bidding process.

Reports suggest that home qualifying matches for the football World Cup and European Championships should also be on the list, as should Ashes cricket test matches.

A spokesman for the WRU would last night only say: “We haven’t yet seen the report and await its publication with interest. If rugby is affected, we will be leaving any response to the appropriate body, which is the Six Nations Committee.”

Privately, however, senior executives at the WRU are seriously concerned at the potential impact of the Crown Jewels recommendation on the grassroots game.

Without Sky as a potential bidder, they believe the BBC would be able to strike a harder bargain, resulting in less revenue for the WRU. That, they believe, would force them to cut the support currently given to the great majority of the 241 clubs that play in the lower leagues.

In June, when AMs debated the issue at the Senedd, Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones confirmed that the Assembly Government wanted Six Nations matches to be added to the Crown Jewels.

The current Sky Ashes deal is worth £300m, and similar fears have been expressed by the England and Wales Cricket Board.

The British Open golf tournament and the whole of Wimbledon are also expected to be classed as events of “special national resonance”.

Reacting to the decision to put the home football qualifying matches on the list, Gordon Smith, chief executive of the Scottish FA, said it demonstrated a lack of understanding.

“The games should be free to air – well it sounds great, it’s very populist in terms of the actual impact of it and I can understand that,” he said. “But from our point of view we think it would be disastrous for the game in terms of what we put into the game in Scotland.”

The majority of Mr Davies’ review is likely to be rubber stamped, including plans to abolish the so-called B list of events, highlights of which must be shown on terrestrial TV. Sporting fixtures like the Winter Olympics, the Derby, the Ryder Cup, Cricket World Cup and the World Athletics Championships could find themselves de-listed.

Despite the potential loss of exposure, some believe these events could potentially benefit from deals with pay TV.

“If you can negotiate bigger deals by not being on the list, arguably you have more funds to put back into the sports and create a better spectacle on the ground,” said brand expert Chris Lightfoot. “That in turn provides sponsors with other opportunities and benefits.”

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