By Jamie Watts | Media Research Manager
Our Media Research Manager Jamie Watts looks at the worrying viewing figures for the Six Nations and examines how the rugby championship is trying to address a decline in younger audiences.
The past few months have been tumultuous for rugby union in the UK and the lingering economic effects of Covid-19 have had lasting effects on the financial health of the sport.
Two professional English clubs, Worcester and Wasps, have been relegated from the Gallagher Premiership after going into administration. The Welsh Rugby Union narrowly avoided its national team going on strike during the Six Nations. And while the Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) plan to lower the tackle height at grassroots rugby has now been abandoned, the fear of disgruntled amateur players quitting the sport remains.
Amid all the background noise, the 2023 Six Nations Championship turned the focus back to the sport itself. However, viewership data from the tournament shows that its live reach in the UK was lower than in any of the last 10 years, and has been falling since 2016.
In 2016, 64.5 per cent of the UK population watched a continuous minute of the Six Nations, but this number has been declining every year since. The 2023 edition has seen this number drop further to 49.1 per cent of the population, a 24 per-cent drop compared with 2016. Worryingly for the long-term future of the competition, the decrease in younger viewers is even more extreme.
In 2015, 50.8 per cent of people aged 16-34 in the UK watched a continuous minute of coverage but the most recent edition saw the competition reach only 27.9 per cent of this age group, a 45 per-cent drop.
The decline in viewers over the past decade is clear to see and Six Nations Rugby clearly felt the need to act on this. Before the 2023 Championship it was announced that Netflix would be making a documentary series on the tournament, allowing full access to all teams, with a planned release date of winter 2024. With falling live viewership, the hope is that this series will emulate the success of Drive to Survive in Formula 1.
However, is the Six Nations not a bit late to the party? There is now an overwhelming number of sports documentaries being released and there is a risk the Six Nations will find itself struggling to compete against the likes of Break Point, Full Swing and countless others.
The Six Nations could have an advantage over its competitors in tennis and golf, given rugby union’s rich off-field pickings and form for producing popular fly-on-the-wall sports documentaries. Living with Lions, a documentary series following the British and Irish Lions infamous 1997 tour of South Africa, proved a massive hit that inspired a generation of young players to fall in love with rugby.
That said, in a world of SVOD viewing, one could argue that rugby is re-entering the genre at the tail-end of the curve.
Drive To Survive was first released in 2019, capturing the imagination of young audiences and having a seismic effect on Formula 1’s live TV audience figures. BARB states that the 2021 competition saw Formula 1’s UK audience figures rise to their highest level in around four to five years, while the 2022 season average viewership was reported to be up 60 per cent since 2019.
Not only have viewership figures grown overall, global survey results commissioned by Motorsport Network in partnership with F1 show that F1 fans are becoming younger and more diverse as a direct result of Drive to Survive. Six Nations Rugby and its member unions and federations will hope that these results will be repeated for its own tournament, with the aforementioned drop in reach figures for younger viewers showing a real need to address this.
To its credit, the Six Nations does have a wider strategy to engage with the next generation of rugby fans. In the build up to this year’s competition there was the announcement that TikTok would retain sponsorship of the tournament as part of a long-term, four-year deal. Last year, the platform’s sponsorship of the 2022 Guinness Six Nations saw TikTok boast almost six billion views of posts with the hashtag #SixNationsRugby. However, it remains a concern that these numbers aren’t reflected in the tournament’s long-form live match viewership.
For Generation Z, sport is as much about what happens off the pitch than on it. Rugby union has an opportunity to build the profiles of individual stars such as England’s Maro Itoje and France’s Antoine Dupont, who enjoy nothing close to the adulation of their football counterparts Marcus Rashford and Kylian Mbappé.
The Six Nations Netflix documentary and the long-term partnership with TikTok can only grow the stature of these players and bring new interest to the sport. With that, we might just see a new generation come through to Six Nations live audiences back on the rise for the first time since 2016.