The future of rugby in a new sporting world

As this year’s Six Nations begins, the tournament finds itself at a crossroads, much like the wider rugby world. On the one hand, it has a storied and proud history, many of its traditions are grounded in its amateur roots before rugby was professionalised in 1995. On the other hand, it has a murky and uncertain future, in which its financial foundations are increasingly undermined by its own often bungled attempts at corporate management, as well as outside threats.

The Six Nations’s recent forays into the world of streaming and distribution rights exemplify its difficult situation. Netflix have just dropped their documentary Six Nations: Full Contact, which followed the 2023 Six Nations with behind-the-scenes access. However, while it was made by the creators of the Drive to Survive documentary series which introduced a new legion of fans to Formula One, they do not seem to have been as successful this time.

Torn between introducing rugby to a new audience and providing innovative insights for its old fanbase, it lands itself in an ugly entanglement. Ultimately, it seems to veer towards the former, no doubt with the provisional decision to stage the 2031 Rugby World Cup in the USA in mind. In doing so, it favours excessive match highlights and superficial player interviews over genuine deep dives into what makes rugby so special: its peerless blend of elegant artistry and brutal physicality, maverick individualism and selfless teamwork.

This Netflix offering came the day after a potentially much more significant decision was made regarding the television viewing of the Six Nations: the UK government confirmed there were no plans to raise it from Category B to Category A in the Ofcom sporting code. Whereas Category B events can be on subscription services on the proviso that their highlights are free-to-air, Category A events must first be offered to free-to-air channels on ‘fair and reasonable terms’ before subscription services can bid for them.

This leaves viewing of the competition susceptible to being privatised, leaving many worried about its future. Conservative MP, and chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, Stephen Crabb spoke against the decision, declaring ‘we know there’s an agenda out there, we know there are people pushing for the Six Nations to be marketed off to the highest bidder’. Considering the integral role of the UK in the Six Nations, obstructing its population’s ability to watch the tournament in such a manner seems like a potentially disastrous mistake.

The stakes at play here are magnified further by the wider mire rugby union generally finds itself in currently. In 2020, it was announced a lawsuit was being launched against rugby authorities on behalf of former players suffering from a variety of symptoms, all allegedly derived from brain injuries sustained playing the game. Over three years later, the case it still winding its way through the labyrinth of legal avenues it must pass, but its potential impact is undoubted.

The stakes at play here are magnified further by the wider mire rugby union generally finds itself in currently

At the end of November, the partial lifting of a court-ordered anonymity order revealed 226 of the claimants, who included internationals from ten countries, ranging from Scotland centurion Sean Lamont to former All Black prop Carl Hayman to three members of England’s 2003 World Cup winning squad (Steve Thompson, Phil Vickery and Mark Regan).  

The potential financial impact of this claim is catastrophic. In 2013, the NFL agreed a $600 million settlement regarding ex-players who suffered concussion-related injuries playing the sport. Rugby, whose journey to financial viability since its 1995 professionalisation has often been ironically amateur, quite simply cannot afford to pay such a sum.

Moreover, the consequences of this lawsuit extend far beyond its possible monetary effect: there is no way of telling how it will affect the next generation of players – and, perhaps more importantly, their parents. In an age where sports are struggling for relevance to an unprecedented extent – why play football or rugby on a cold, muddy pitch when you can potentially make a career out of playing them virtually in the warmth and comfort of your own bedroom – Rugby cannot afford to fall further behind its competitors.

Moreover, the consequences of this lawsuit extend far beyond its possible monetary effect: there is no way of telling how it will affect the next generation of players – and, perhaps more importantly, their parents

Football is a world-wide phenomenon and its financial brawn is likely unchallengeable. The American sports – American football, basketball and baseball – have likely already sown up that particular market and are, to varying extents, making increasingly threatening global overtures backed by their considerable finances.

Cricket is perhaps most comparable to rugby union in its increasingly desperate attempts to maintain relevance, but can at least rely on its considerable fanbase in India. Rugby union cannot even depend on that: in Australia it must battle with rugby league and Australian rules football; in Ireland with hurling and Gaelic football; in Britan and South Africa with football and cricket; in France and Italy with football; even in New Zealand it faces competition from basketball and football.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the conundrum rugby union finds itself in. Somehow it must balance remaining true to its core character with improving its safety, all while finally figuring out how it can commercially market itself successfully.

It is a tough task, but there is no doubt that it is also a necessary one. Failure means extinction in all likelihood.

Image Credit: Cangadoba via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Image Description: Johnny Sexton scores a try for Ireland against France at the 2014 Six Nations