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BBC admits it may not be able to afford to keep Six Nations rugby

The BBC may no longer be able to afford to keep its share of the Six Nations due to the spiralling costs of broadcast rights and a fall in its income, its outgoing director of sport has warned MPs.

Barbara Slater told the Digital, Media and Sport select committee that “incredibly difficult” decisions would have to be taken due to sports rights having more than doubled in the past decade, while the BBC’s income had gone down 30% in real terms.

The tournament has traditionally been available free to air in the UK, but it is not among the protected listed events in the same way that the men’s and women’s World Cup, the Olympics and Wimbledon are.

Recent reports have also suggested that the creation of a new world league could see rugby’s television rights sold as a bundle – taking it further out of reach of the BBC.

Slater admitted that the financial pressures on the corporation when it came to sport were increasingly stark. “We need a well-funded BBC if we are going to be able to continue to afford sports rights,” she told MPs. “Sports rights in the UK have more than doubled in the past decade. BBC’s income in real terms has gone down 30 per cent. It is incredibly difficult for the BBC to maintain, across a range of sports, the expectations of those governing bodies.”

Pressed by John Nicholson MP, she added: “With the Six Nations, like anything, we will have to assess the affordability at the time. Because it is very difficult for the BBC, on that trajectory of income, to continue to afford everything that we have. The truth is we’re probably not going to be the highest bidder, and it will come down to individual governing bodies as to how they balance that reach and revenue.”

Asked whether there were genuine fears that the Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup could be lost from terrestrial TV, the director of ITV sport Niall Sloane said: “I don’t think we’ve ever done a deal where there wasn’t speculation, and probably well-founded speculation, that it could, in some or in whole, go to a pay operator.

“But it’s less so with the Rugby World Cup because we’ve only done two deals in my time at ITV,” he added. “I think they recognise that if you’re going to grow the game, something like the Rugby World Cup should be on free-to-air but there’s no guarantee of it whatsoever.”

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Meanwhile Slater, who will retire from the BBC in the spring, also called for the 3pm Saturday blackout of showing football matches in the UK to be lifted to show women’s games.

“It’s no accident that for us, our audience on Saturday with Chelsea v Liverpool was a record breaking WSL audience,” she said. “There is a lot of logic about it being that Saturday afternoon slot. It doesn’t have to be that. But I think it would be wonderful to see football come together and do that.”

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