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Does paywall coverage really damage grassroots participation?

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

Multiple media reports this week suggest that the Six Nations is set to move to Sky next year. Having always been on free-to-air television in the UK there is much speculation that this could be hugely damaging for rugby, particularly when it comes to participation.

But just how important is the broadcast of elite sport when it comes to participation at grassroots?

Alun Wyn Jones at Six Nations launch.
Next year's Six Nations could be on Sky. Credit: @JayAlbz11viaTwenty20

The Cricket Example

Many have been quick to draw parallels between the Six Nations and the England cricket team. Coverage of these games moved from Channel 4 to Sky in 2005. There has been a clear decline in participation since it moved, in the region of 20%. During this time, participation in rugby, by comparison has remained healthy and continued to grow.

But the fact that the national side isn’t shown on national free television is only one factor, it’s overly simplistic to suggest that it’s the only reason why participation has struggled. There are many other socio-economic barriers involved. Ranging from cultural diversity to closure of school playing fields. Problems that ECB is looking to address (its ‘Chance to Shine’ and ‘Dynamos’ initiatives for example) but problems that are not unique to cricket.

Will the money make it back to grassroots?

The major advantage of working with a paid broadcaster is that they bring bigger pay cheques. Allowing much needed investment that can help fund equipment, facilities and coaching at the grassroots level. This is of course working on the basis that the money makes it that far. One of the big concerns with the Six Nations deal is that it is being driven by a venture capitalist group called CVC. Their primary concern is seeing significant return on investment. They’re not in the game for altruistic reasons or to make friends. Ask fans of Formula One and they will have an opinion one way or the other about CVC, who controlled the sport until the sale to Liberty Media. A big decision faces rugby’s administrators, how much of the increased investment should be directed at the community game? And how much to the elite level to the players who are putting their bodies on the line?


The examples of both cricket and rugby raise another interesting point, that of class. Both sports have a middle class image in the UK (perhaps with the exception of rugby in Wales.) Studies show that children from poorer families are considerably more likely to be less active than those in richer households. The benefits of sport and exercise are well documented, yet when it comes to education, evidence suggests that it is not being treated with anywhere near the importance than that of academic subjects. Throw into the mix that the sale of 215 school playing fields were approved by the government since 2010 and it starts to paint a picture more complicated than a simple ‘Free TV = Participation’ argument.

Digital era

Much has been made of the change in linear TV consumption. Viewers are spending less time engaging with live TV and more time on digital devices. While this is true, sport does buck the trend somewhat here. Research in the US shows that in 2018 sport accounted for more than 90% of the most watched shows, compared to circa 50% in 2011. The jeopardy of live sport means it has less shelf life than streaming a boxset, still placing the emphasis on watching live over catch-up.

Alongside this, though, is the increased amount of time spent on mobile devices generally. Meaning social media content is a hugely important tool for reaching new audiences, particularly younger ones. Broadcasters have historically been reluctant to give away their best content for free on social media but the likes of Sky and BT have become increasingly savvy at using this as a way to market their events.

England Netball reported a big participation increase following their Commonwealth Games victory

Reason for hope?

The cricket example is probably the most quoted, but it is an old one given how much the TV landscape has changed. Perhaps a more interesting example is that of netball. After England beat Australia in the most dramatic fashion at Commonwealth Games 2018, more than 160,000 people in the UK took up the sport. Whilst that event was shown on free-to-air television, the game already had a strong foundation within the club game to build upon. It also, it has to be said, has benefited from a great relationship with Sky Sports (who show the domestic league). Plus it is a game with lower barriers to entry in terms of equipment. England Netball runs an excellent scheme called ‘Back to Netball’ encouraging lapsed players to get involved again.

They’ve also been instrumental in supporting the success of Netball sessions at (Underdog client) GoFest Active festivals, providing coaches, referees and support for training sessions and tournaments for both adults and kids.

All of which demonstrates that participation is a more complex issue than just TV but perhaps netball provides other sports with a template of how to significantly increase participation levels.


The problem of participation and inactivity in this country, is not one that is going to be solved in one LinkedIn article. But in short, whilst the TV rights debate is just one piece of a complex jigsaw, it is in our opinion a large one.



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