Rugby union’s bid to build a more sustainable financial future is set to see Amazon Prime unveiled as the broadcast partner for the new Autumn Nations Cup in November. It is also understood the streaming service is eyeing up other top rugby tournaments as the sport’s officials seek ways to increase income amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The fixtures for the eight-team Autumn Nations Cup have been confirmed with Ireland to start the ball rolling against Wales in Dublin on Friday 13 November. Rather than staying faithful to its traditional roster of rugby broadcasters, the Six Nations will shortly confirm Amazon Prime has been awarded the rights.
With Sky’s long-standing deal to show England’s November internationals now at an end, Amazon has a timely opportunity to flex its significant financial muscle and utilise rugby as a vehicle to attract new sofa-bound subscribers at a moment when stadiums remain largely empty.
Rugby is also having to re-examine its business model, with free-to-air broadcast partners able to pay significantly less for exclusive rights to the northern hemisphere’s leading competitions.
A new Six Nations broadcasting deal is also being negotiated, with BBC and ITV under intense pressure from other interested parties wishing to secure the rights from 2022 onwards.
The flip side is the potential loss of millions of terrestrial viewers who cannot afford subscriptions, although the BBC has had access only to highlights of England’s recent autumn internationals. Autumn tests in Wales and Scotland, however, have until now been televised live on BBC.
While it is still likely some autumn games will be free-to-air, the RFU’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, has painted a stark picture of the huge financial losses facing the union. While the union remains hopeful 22,000 people, largely debenture and season ticket holders, will be allowed in to Twickenham for their November games, that will still leave the ground almost three-quarters empty.
Sweeney is also waiting for further details from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport following the government update which, for now, limits the size of crowds at test events to 1,000. “We remain cautiously optimistic about the return of fans to the stadium,” he said As things stand, the RFU is still planning to stage a test event for 7,500 people on either 10 or 17 October.
With differing restrictions in place in Ireland and France and positive cases of coronavirus rising again, it is nevertheless an anxious time for all concerned. With the Principality Stadium still unavailable, the location for Wales’ home fixtures remains undetermined but the addition of Fiji and Georgia has allowed for twopools. England will play in Group A alongside Ireland, Wales and Georgia, with Group B comprising France, Scotland, Italy and Fiji. Based on the pool rankings approaching the final weekend, each team will face off against the side ranked in the same position in the opposite pool.
Launching a tournament on the evening of Friday 13th might feel unlucky for some but Ben Morel, the Six Nations chief executive, is not among them. “While the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic made the traditional Autumn Test window unfeasible, we remained determined to deliver a unique and compelling tournament proposition,” he said.
“We cannot wait for the tournament to get under way in November and fans can look forward to some outstanding matches featuring some of the greatest players in the world.” The need for strict medical protocols and a secure hotel base, however, is set to see England decamp from their normal Bagshot headquarters and move in to the Lensbury Club in Teddington. England’s women, meanwhile, will play France on successive weekends, with the home game set to be staged at Twickenham on 21 November ahead of the men’s fixture against Ireland.