Adding Wales’ Six Nations matches to a list of protected free-to-air TV events would threaten the survival of the Welsh Rugby Union, its new chief executive warned.
Abi Tierney, who was appointed in August, told the Senedd’s culture committee that continued investment in Welsh rugby is heavily reliant on money from media rights.
She said: “We absolutely need to strike a balance between the assessment on what reach we need to give with a balance on investment in the game.
“Without this investment we would really struggle to continue to survive as a union.”
Ms Tierney said the WRU raises about £90m a year in total revenue, including an average of £20m from media rights, with about £62m spent on the community and regional game.
She said: “Even losing 20-30% of that would mean a massive impact across the game.”
The warning follows the Senedd unanimously agreeing to urge the UK Government to add the Six Nations to Ofcom’s category A listed events.
Pressed about the potential impact on participation levels if rugby went behind a paywall, Nigel Walker acknowledged the correlation but warned of unintended consequences.
The WRU’s executive director of rugby said the sport must be viable as well as visible.
He said: “What we’re not saying is that we are going to select, as part of the Six Nations negotiating team, a pay-per-view broadcaster.
“What we are saying is that if you take that off the table, you take the tension and competition out of the market – and that would make it really difficult.
“Then the free-to-air broadcasters would pitch at a level which we would be forced to take.”
Mr Walker, who was formerly responsible for negotiating sports rights at BBC Wales, described the current climate as a perfect storm.
The former athlete and Wales winger said selling sports rights has been increasingly difficult in recent years due to economic headwinds.
He told MSs: “There’s a downward trend and the offers being made over the past 12 months in particular are showing a 30% downturn.”
Mr Walker stressed the importance of balancing the greater reach of public service broadcasting and revenue generation.
He told the committee meeting on February 1 that the WRU will not necessarily back the highest bidder when the rights go onto the market in 2024.
Responding to concerns that participation in rugby could mirror a decline in cricket if the sport is no longer free to air, Mr Walker said it would be a part of the equation.
He agreed that what has happened with cricket is a warning sign.
He told MSs: “If, and it’s a 20-foot ‘if’, a decision was made to go to a pair-per-view broadcaster, outside of highlights being on terrestrial TV which would be one key thing, the way that young people consume sport would also be taken into consideration.”
Asked about Welsh-medium coverage, Mr Walker said the WRU intends to ensure the offer is always there whether through S4C or the red button.
Ms Tierney said the WRU has to think much more creatively about how to invest in storytelling and creating role models.
She pointed to the example of the Full Contact programme about last year’s Six Nations on Netflix, saying that’s how younger generations are choosing to consume sport.
Pressed about concerns that local pubs and clubs may not be able to afford to show matches, Ms Tierney said affordability will be part of the consideration.
She told committee members: “We need to have the money to invest in rugby at all levels and that’s what we really want to achieve through this process.”
Mr Walker said the WRU is not advocating the best thing for rugby is to move behind a paywall but taking the option off the table would impact the value of broadcasting rights.
Asked if the WRU is over reliant on rights income, Ms Tierney warned that its finances are unsustainable and diversifying revenue streams will be an important part of the strategy.
On the role of CVC, a hedge fund which owns a 14% stake in Six Nations rugby, Ms Tierney said the company is represented on the board and will be part of the conversation.
Mr Walker said CVC understands the importance of growing the game, stressing: “They’re not in it for short-term gain, I’ve not seen any evidence of that.”