Six Nations: How to Future Proof ‘Rugby’s Greatest Championship’

Six Nations: How to Future Proof ‘Rugby’s Greatest Championship’

As the Six Nations comes to a close this weekend, Senior Account Manager, Raul Alexis, discusses what the commercial future of the rightsholder could look like.

Much has been made in recent weeks about which direction the Tier 1 European unions that make up the Six Nations should take their flagship competition over the next few years: take the up-front money from private equity firm CVC and lose control of its commercial arm or keep commercial control and nurture the competition from in-house.

From an outside perspective, the Six Nations appears in good shape to be able to follow the latter path. Viewership figures remain extremely high, as evidenced by the 5.9 million viewers who tuned into BBC One’s coverage of France v England on the opening weekend. Across the last year, mentions on social media of the Six Nations in home markets far outnumbered those of the Champions Cup, Premiership, Pro14 or Autumn Internationals, proving that the tournament is still the most prestigious, anticipated and talked-about rugby competition of the year.

On top of this, the Six Nations is at the heart of the rise of the Women’s game. For the opening match of the 2020 Women’s Six Nations, French broadcaster France 2 reported an audience of 1.9 million viewers. And lastly, for all the negative headlines two years ago focusing on an apparent inability to secure a title sponsor, the tournament has (albeit for a fraction of its initial asking price) landed a hugely relevant title sponsor in Guinness, with a strong tradition in Rugby Union on a long-term deal.

All of this suggests that the Six Nations has an extremely strong platform to develop into the international rightsholder that it aspires to be. In the following paragraphs we outline several key areas in which the Six Nations can develop, engage new audiences and markets, and in turn grow revenues.

Six Nations: The Brand & Sponsorship

When the Premier League simplified and revamped its branding in 2016 it was a statement. It reinforced the idea that the League itself was the hero of the story, with sponsors re-organised into a flat structure that fed into the new brand. It was a bold move but one that was made by a rightsholder who was confident of its position in the minds of its audience.

Following this tactic would be impossible for the Six Nations in the short term, given Guinness has secured the title sponsorship until 2024. However, it should be seriously considered as a long-term option that will further cement the Six Nations brand in the eyes of both old and new fans. With the Diageo deal in place as a safety net, the next four years could be spent preparing the competition for this big leap.

The first task on the to-do list must be to fill out the tournament’s sponsorship portfolio with brands on a par with Diageo (Amazon Web Services and Tissot being the only other two partners currently in contract). Under the current economic environment, brands’ budgets are under increasing pressure and clients are generally expecting more return (or at least more immediate and obvious return) from the money they do spend in sponsorship. In response, rightsholders must adapt by developing improved ways to demonstrate the impact of sponsorship on brands’ businesses. The Six Nations would undoubtedly benefit from exploring this option, setting up a dedicated sponsorship analytics team that could support sponsorship sales and renewal efforts with bespoke business impact models, evaluations and measurement targeting both potential and existing partners.

There is also plenty of scope for Six Nations Ltd to implement innovative and flexible new strategies when creating sponsorship packages to attract new partners. For example, the competition could follow the footsteps of football clubs such as Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal in positioning itself as a media publisher (perhaps partnering with a digital media platform to strengthen this proposition), and creating short term, digitally-focused partnership packages for brands who want to reach the Six Nations audience effectively. Given the short time-window of the competition, these more tactical packages may just fit perfectly with the budgets and plans of many relevant brands.

Growing Globally

A major reason for the Six Nations’ struggles with finding a new title sponsor is thought to be the rightsholder’s asking price of £16 million. This price, placed somewhere between a top tier national-level sponsorship package and elite international properties such as those owned by FIFA, the IOC or UEFA, reflected an ambition for the Six Nations to be seen as a global product. The reality, however, may have been slightly different.

Rugby cannot compete with football on a global scale, but as the 2019 World Cup demonstrated, there are several key markets that represent lucrative potential for World Rugby, the Six Nations, SANZAAR and other stakeholders; Japan and North America being chief among these.

While including Japan, the USA or Canada in an expanded version of the tournament would be the most direct way to target these markets, major questions of logistics and/or the gulf in on-field quality would dilute everything that is special about the Six Nations, at least in the short term. Until these questions can be answered, the rightsholder should look at alternative ways to engage the potential audiences in these emerging markets.

The first job here could be to increase accessibility to its property through broadcast and streaming. In the United States for example, the competition is currently broadcast live on NBC Sports Gold (with tape-delayed broadcasts airing hours later on the NBC Sport cable channel), a subscription service that sits behind an $80 paywall. Nielsen research from 2018 reported more than 33 million people to be either very interested or interested in the sport, which represents a massive potential audience when compared to the UK, Ireland, France and Italy. Out of that potential audience, the 2019 Six Nations garnered an average of 127,000 US viewers per match on NBC, a figure that suggests there are masses of American rugby fans who are missing out on some of the best test match rugby available. The Six Nations must work closely with its international broadcasters and streaming partners, who are probably best placed to find effective avenues into the local market.

A possible route to explore in this regard would be live fan engagement, to both reward the established test rugby fans in these regions and foster new fans. The Premier League, albeit with a huge advantage given its entrenched global appeal, provides an excellent case study in this field. Taking its cue from popular local fan-organised live events across the United States, the Premier League, in collaboration with its local broadcaster NBC, started hosting its own official live fan engagement events in 2018: Premier League Mornings Live. These ticketed events feature in cities across the US and allow for US Premier League fans who usually only get to watch matches through their TVs to get closer to the action. The events take the form of ‘fan fests’ centring around live screenings of matches (often with NBC’s pundits broadcasting live from the event), but also include food and beverages, talent meet and greets, experiential activities, the PL trophy and merchandise points of sale. It is not far-fetched to imagine that this extremely successful model (PL Mornings Live are still running regularly across the US) could also work for the Six Nations to nurture and grow loyal rugby fanbases in emerging markets who lack regular access to test rugby.

None of the above suggestions are easy fixes and would require substantial work to gauge the viability of each option. The Six Nations is a hugely popular tournament, with a loyal fan base that uniquely bridges the gap between hardcore and casual rugby fans, and the platform and assets to cultivate that audience as well as capture new ones. Through investment by the national unions (or perhaps a benign outside investor) and a clear strategy, there is no reason why the tournament cannot develop into a highly profitable, world class property.

To read our views on 2019’s Rugby World Cup, click here.