Reading some of the reactions to today’s news that live Six Nations matches might disappear from the BBC, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world was about to implode upon itself.
One of the most ridiculous arguments put forward has been that the general public have some unimpeachable right to watch rugby on television for “free.”
It may have passed these people by, but Rugby Union has been a professional sport for 20 years now. It costs a lot of money to run a successful professional sports team. Just ask the owners of Saracens and Toulon, or indeed the Irish Rugby Football Union (although it is debt, rather than real money which finances the latter).
The most negative reaction to today’s news has been in Wales. Over the border in England they’ve been paying a monthly subscription to Sky, and now BT Sport, to watch their domestic rugby on the TV. It doesn’t seem to have done their game any harm. It’s brought in levels of investment which the terrestrial broadcasters could never afford. Levels of investment which are the envy of those who hold the threadbare purse strings over here in Wales.
We are faced with a situation which has persisted for several years, where our regions and indeed our Union are forced to live virtually hand-to-mouth. You may think the WRU have plenty of cash, but even they recently had to go cap in hand to the Welsh Government for a £1.7 million handout to fund a new pitch at the Millennium Stadium.
In spite of the much-trumpeted “Rugby Services Agreement”, which was supposed to herald a brave new dawn of affluence in our game, players are still disappearing over the horizon to France and England, and with one or two exceptions, they look like they’re going to stay there unless Welsh regions can start writing cheques as big as the French and English clubs. That ain’t going to happen unless more money is injected into our game.
There are many reasons why our game is so poor compared to England and France. Yes, their benefactors have deeper pockets than ours, but the biggest reason is the absence of serious TV money here in Wales. OK, so Sky have recently invested in the laughable “Pro12″, a dogshit league which came into being out of desperation rather than intelligent design.
The Celtic nations were like the ugly blokes left in the disco at the end of the night. Someone put the lights on and they saw they’d been left on their own. But Sky’s level of investment in the Pro12 is tiny compared to the money they were spending on the English league before BT came and trumped them, and it doesn’t even start to bridge the yawning financial chasm across the River Severn.
There was plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth when the Ospreys and Scarlets again failed to get beyond the group stages of this season’s European Rugby Champions Cup. Not much energy was expended on looking at the reasons why. It’s a simple matter of money, or the lack of it. Welsh rugby will continue to flatline until this issue is properly addressed.
The success of Team Wales over the past decade has papered over the cracks, at least for the “casual rugby fans” who may only watch a handful of “live” rugby matches (on TV) every year. But to people who pay real money to watch real live rugby in the flesh, week-in, week-out, and those who give their spare time to help out their local rugby club, Team Wales is only one piece of the jigsaw. The fact is that Welsh rugby does not have enough money to sustain itself, and the effect is being felt at every level. Eventually even the casual fans will notice this.
Boxing and Cricket have been cited as examples of sports which have been ruined by pay-TV. Maybe they have for those naive souls who think TV sport should still be free, but the British Isles have been bit-part players in those sports for years. If Boxing and Cricket had stayed on free-TV, they would have long since become extinct as professional sports in Britain.
Football has shown that pay-TV is the only way to sustainable success in the modern era. Sky and BT have dedicated sports channels, which means they can broadcast matches on a Saturday afternoon. More crucially, as everyone knows, they have a lot more money than the BBC and ITV, who can’t compete in the modern marketplace. It’s time we stopped moaning about paying for sport on TV, and realised that if we don’t pay for it, then nobody else will, and it will be too late. Anyhow, they’ve probably got BT Sport and Sky at your local rugby club, so you can watch the Six Nations games there.
You do know where your local rugby club is, don’t you?