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'Pay-to-view' Six Nations looming for rugby fans

IRELAND's Six Nations rugby games may soon be restricted only to subscribers of pay-to-view channels.

As the afterglow of Ireland's weekend rugby feast continues, negotiations are now open on new television match contracts with representatives of the six countries in the competition.

And already there are ominous soundings that subscription channels, with very deep pockets, will out-bid the existing services including RTé.

This means people who cannot stump up for pay-to-view television services such as Sky or BT Sport, may have to wait until hours after the final whistle to see the game as a "deferred broadcast".

The threat increases pressure on the Government, and specifically Communications Minister Alex White, to extend greater protection to the Irish rugby matches by putting them on the mandatory "free-to-air list".

Sports Minister Michael Ring last night said that he was concerned about the issue and had already met RTé and the IRFU to discuss their views of the situation. "I have now sought a meeting with Minister White, who has the final say," Mr Ring said.

The Communications Department last summer sought submissions from all interested parties on the issue of sports television rights. But since then there has been no indication of any movement by the department.

"Following a period of public consultation, the list of designated events is currently under review by the minister," was all Mr White's spokesperson would say last night.

RTé bought the rights for the Six Nations back in 2012, covering the years 2014-2017 inclusive. That means viewers have just two full seasons remaining, and exploratory talks have already begun on new television contracts, as sources close to the process last night confirmed that these talks have already opened.

In late January, John Feehan, of the Six Nations grouping, said they could not rule out deals with subscription channels such as Sky. He said designating the Six Nations as "free-to-air" would hugely diminish the rugby organisations' bargaining power.

On the other side of the equation, public service broadcasters, including RTé, will argue that ultimately they cannot compete with the huge satellite broadcasting conglomerates.

"These have deep, deep, pockets," one source familiar with the negotiations commented wryly.

Ireland's list of protected "free-to-air" sports events has been drawn up to comply with EU law and is provided for in Irish legislation which dates from 2009. It does not include the Six Nations, which is given lesser status.

Irish Independent