WRU: Forcing Six Nations to stay free on TV risks 'devastating effect' on Welsh rugby

New WRU CEO Abi Tierney made the stark warning in a letter to MSs. Credit: PA Images

Forcing the Six Nations to remain on free-to-air television could have a "devastating effect" on rugby at all levels in Wales, according to new Welsh Rugby Union CEO Abi Tierney.

Ms Tierney made the stark warning in a letter to a committee of Senedd members (MSs), although she insisted "Our position is not that Six Nations Championship rugby should be moved away from free-to-air television channels."

It comes after the UK Government said the tournament would not be granted the same status as football World Cups, the Olympics and Wimbledon, which are all but guaranteed to remain free for viewers to watch.

Abi Tierney was appointed CEO in August last year, following a difficult period for the WRU. Credit: WRU

A group of Welsh MPs had asked for the Six Nations broadcasting rights to be moved from Group B to Group A with other major sporting events, which would mean the main free-to-air broadcasters would be offered rights to show it on "fair and reasonable terms."

The cross-party Welsh Affairs Select Committee warned last year the tournament risked moving behind a paywall without greater protection.

Ms Tierney was writing to politicians on the Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport, and International Relations Committee at the Senedd.

She is due to appear in front of the committee on Thursday alongside the WRU's Executive Director of Rugby Nigel Walker.

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In her letter to politicians in Cardiff Bay, Ms Tierney said: "We would strongly guard against moving Six Nations Rugby Championship broadcast rights from Group B to the Group A list of sporting events of 'national interest' as nominated by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

"Our primary motivation for making this recommendation is to maintain the balance which currently exists in the broadcasting ecosystem."

Wales kick off their Six Nations campaign against Scotland on Saturday at the Principality Stadium. Credit: PA Images

She added: "The negative financial implications of moving international rugby matches in the Six Nations Rugby Championship to the protected list could have a devastating impact on the whole of the game in Wales in the medium and long term."

Slightly more than a quarter of the WRU's income has come from broadcasting rights over the last five years, according to Ms Tierney.

She said: "The health of Welsh rugby relies heavily upon the income generated by its media rights. This funding fuels the investment in the development and grassroots areas of the game and therefore its long-term sustainability."

Welsh regional rugby has faced a difficult period, with a salary cap pushing many top players abroad, leaving them ineligible to play for the national team.

Thousands of fans are set to fill the Principality Stadium for the first time since Louis Rees-Zammit decided to leave rugby for the NFL. Credit: PA Images

A paywall would inevitably reduce the number of viewers - something Ms Tierney is hesitant about. However, she said there is "a balance to be struck" between drawing a large audience and keeping the option to go to broadcasters who demand a fee to watch.

Ms Tierney said she did not think the championship should go behind a paywall.

Broadcasters will be invited later this year to bid for the rights to show both the men's and women's Six Nations from 2026 onwards.

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Addressing the process, Ms Tierney said: "It will ensure, as with previous Six Nations Rugby tender processes, that all principal broadcasters (Free To Air and Pay) will have the opportunity to respond.

"For the benefit of doubt, the opportunity will be made available to UK FTA broadcasters through this process to acquire all or some of the Six Nations Rugby Championships (Men’s and Women’s)."

A DCMS spokesperson said:"The listed events regime aims to ensure many of the nation's biggest sporting events are free-to-air wherever possible while protecting competition organisers' ability to raise income from the sale of broadcast rights to invest in their sports. 

“We believe the current list strikes an appropriate balance, with protections in place for highlights of the Six Nations tournament and live coverage of the Rugby World Cup final, and therefore have no plans to amend the regime.”

Wales kick-off their Six Nations campaign against Scotland at the Principality Stadium on Saturday.