2022 Six Nations preview with chief executive Ben Morel

Ben Morel is looking forward to a bit of normality returning, but remains very much aware of how quickly things can change.

“We have to be vigilant,” says the Six Nations Rugby chief executive, speaking to SportsPro on the eve of this year’s men’s tournament. “We are dealing with totally different sets of circumstances, different sets of virus prevalence, so we are constantly adapting to a fast-evolving situation.

“But that’s part of the DNA, I think it’s part of the job. It wasn’t part of the brochure when you sign up to the job, but it is definitely now part of the job. There’s a sense that we’re doing what we need to do, and we need to be ready for the unexpected, and that will be valid for quite a long time.”

Throughout this interview, Morel regularly alludes to a vision that has been in place since he was first appointed to helm the northern hemisphere’s cherished international rugby union tournament in August 2018. Progress towards that, though, has been hampered by factors beyond anyone’s control. Morel’s tenure has so far seen just one Six Nations take place under normal circumstances after the coronavirus caused a delayed end to the 2020 edition and pushed the competition a year later behind closed doors.

We’re doing what we need to do, and we need to be ready for the unexpected, and that will be valid for quite a long time.

Now, though, after a period of uncertainty caused by the Omicron variant, the participating teams – England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales – can once again look forward to playing in front of raucous crowds when the 2022 tournament gets underway on Saturday.

And despite the inevitable dent that the pandemic has left in the accounts of the unions, Morel is in no doubt about the general health of the Six Nations as it plots its own path out of the health crisis.

“I mean, if there’s one thing that the pandemic has shown, it’s how strong the foundation of our tournament is,” he says. “We were one of the very first events to be impacted [by Covid]. We had to postpone four matches to October, and yet still had massive excitement to finish that tournament off, managed to do it without crowds, with record ratings, historical audiences.”

Ben Morel joined the Six Nations as chief executive in 2018

He adds: “So Covid was obviously a massive issue, putting the survival of the sport and tournament and any rights holders at stake. But we are emerging, hopefully, I think, stronger than ever, and with a clear vision.”

Playing a big role in supporting that vision will be CVC Capital Partners, the Luxembourg-based private equity house that is becoming an increasingly influential presence in rugby union.

Already armed with stakes in England’s Premiership Rugby and the United Rugby Championship (URC) provincial competition, CVC last year announced its purchase of a one-seventh share in the Six Nations for UK£365 million (US$497 million). Given the cultural significance of the Six Nations the subject of private investment was always likely to be a delicate one, but crucially the arrangement sees the six unions retain sole responsibility for all sporting matters and majority control over commercial decisions. CVC, meanwhile, will be lending its expertise to Morel and the rest of the tournament’s management team.

While that long-term partnership has only just got underway after securing the required regulatory approvals, Morel says plans are already being made for where the funding will be spent.

“The investment is starting to arrive,” he states, “and we are very careful in terms of making sure that, at the union level, how are we going to best invest this in the longer term interest of our game?

“So everybody’s now actively building up their plans at the union level and us centrally as a tournament organiser in terms of where are the areas of priority. They’re obviously going to be different from one union to another. Italy will probably invest in certain areas, whereas Wales or Scotland in others.

“For us, from a central perspective, it’s all about enhancing our fan experience, digital transformation, understanding who our fans are, what they want, and engaging in meaningful conversations with them on an ongoing and year-round basis.

“And, at the same time, anchoring all this with compelling competitions.”

Compelling competition is something that the Six Nations has rarely lacked, and the improvement of Scotland in recent years has only added to the competitive feel on the pitch. However, Italian rugby supporters won’t need reminding that their team hasn’t won a game in the tournament since beating the Scots in 2015, which has led to suggestions that it might be time to give one of the emerging nations a go.

Italy last won a Six Nations game in 2015

Kensuke Iwabuchi, the chief executive of the Japan Rugby Football Union, ended last year by saying that the Brave Blossoms, who lit up the 2019 Rugby World Cup, are seeking more regular tier one competition. He noted that discussions had taken place with organisers of both the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship, which comprises Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but Morel stresses that it is premature to talk of any change to the northern hemisphere tournament.

“Right now, our strategic priority is to improve the overall global calendar,” states Morel. “We are really focusing on the July and November international windows. Using the benefit of what a successful Autumn Nations Series we’ve had, we could collaborate on scheduling, on bringing those individual matches together as a tournament series, and enhance the competitive narrative of those July and November fixtures. I think that would be a wonderful enhancement for rugby.

“So the Six Nations is at the table actively seeking some of those solutions, working hand in hand with World Rugby, the Sanzaar unions and the players association to really work out something that works for all. And I think that will be a great way for emerging nations to have competitive matches that they seriously lack in the current calendar.”

Stronger alignment in the game as a whole is what the sport needs. There’s great opportunity for alignment and a more readable calendar.

One thing that Morel has consistently championed since arriving at the Six Nations’ Dublin headquarters from the National Basketball Association (NBA) is the need for greater alignment in rugby, a belief that appears to be shared by the tournament’s new backers. It is an approach that Morel feels would benefit rugby at large, where joined-up thinking is sometimes lacking, especially when it comes to reaching a consensus on a schedule that satisfies both international and club stakeholders.

World Rugby, which was previously forced to abandon its Nations Championship concept, has said that changes to the sport’s global calendar will not come before 2024, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from speculating over what that future might look like in the meantime.

“Stronger alignment in the game as a whole is what the sport needs,” Morel reiterates. “I think that will be CVC’s vision, but it’s also something that we share on our side. There’s great opportunity for alignment and a more readable calendar. People need to stop thinking it’s going to be an overnight solution, we need to keep going at it and making sure that it makes sense for all levels of the game, whether it’s club, international, or even amateur in some instances. And how does the women’s calendar fit into this whole thing as well?”

Last year the Six Nations took its own step towards greater alignment by centralising the commercial rights to the men’s, women’s and U20s Six Nations, along with the Autumn Nations Series, which Morel believes provides greater simplicity for those looking to invest in the sport. From a sponsorship perspective, the model already appears to be bearing fruit. Last week saw Breitling sign up as the first timing partner across all tournaments, before social video platform TikTok was announced as the first dedicated title sponsor of the women’s competition, in what was hailed as a ‘landmark partnership’ running until 2025.

“When I first started as CEO of Six Nations,” Morel begins, “I was repeatedly told, ‘how can I get involved in rugby? I need to sign 18 different deals,’ which was probably accurate. And I said, ‘well, I can’t control all the rights that are not in my control, but what I can tell you is, we will work on this to make it a comprehensive offering, and a comprehensive platform for a commercial partner, whether it’s a broadcaster or a sponsor, to really be able to leverage.’

“So one of the benefits is that it’s simpler access to rugby, and a more comprehensive [relationship] with the top of the pyramid. [From the] Guinness Six Nations to a real international global flavour series of matches with the Autumn Nation Series, and a great growth opportunity that we are really championing is women’s rugby. So all of that is a comprehensive platform for our partners to activate, and at the same time, enabling us maybe on the sponsorship standpoint to have access to more pan-regional sponsorship budgets or even global budgets.

“I’m sure there will be more to come there, because all of a sudden we’ve got a comprehensive offering rather than a very local one.”

Securing CVC’s investment and centralising operational activities are two significant changes that have taken place at the Six Nations during the pandemic, but there has been some continuity in the form of the tournament’s biggest media rights deal. Last year it was confirmed that the BBC and commercial network ITV will continue to show the competition in the UK until 2025, allaying widely held fears that the annual event might be disappearing behind a paywall in one of its strongest markets.

A report in The Rugby Paper claims that the BBC and ITV have committed a joint UK£115 million (US$157 million) a year, which would represent a significant increase on the annual UK£90 million (US$122 million) the pair reportedly paid under their previous six-year deal. While acknowledging that there was “considerable competition” for the rights, Morel explains that the decision ultimately came down to the need to strike the right balance between exposure for the tournament, revenue for the game, and promotion of the sport.

“There was a lot of speculation,” he says, reflecting on the rights sales process. “And, you know, a lot of people having an opinion on that. I was definitely of the view that don’t prejudge. At the same time, rights holders are in a very complex situation that is not binary. It’s not whether it’s free-to-air or behind a sort of hypothetical paywall, which has different definitions, as well as to what that means.”

While the Six Nations has found a familiar UK home for the next rights cycle, the tournament organiser has also been experimenting by broadcasting the Autumn Nations Series on the Amazon Prime Video streaming service for the last two years. Morel says fans have responded to that move “extremely positively”. Having the luxury of being able to distribute live games across a mix of free-to-air and pay platforms will likely provide valuable insights that will help inform how the Six Nations’ media strategy evolves moving forward.

“All this is good learning,” says Morel. “But also, I’m very conscious that the environment is fast evolving. The way people consume media, four years is a long time. And at the same time, the advertising business is coming back, and it’s coming back strong, which gives great opportunities for players like ITV to play a significant role.

“So a lot of things can happen. We believe that, at this point in time, we definitely strike the right balance.”

Until then, Morel is keen to revisit some of his pre-pandemic priorities. Given his previous role as the NBA’s senior vice president and managing director of EMEA, it was hoped that Morel’s arrival would help the Six Nations to grow internationally, a task he himself acknowledges was made difficult by the pandemic.

The tournament has undeniably always been strong in its local markets, but Morel is confident that there is still room for it to become more relevant elsewhere. He believes centralising the rights to the Six Nations tournaments and the autumn internationals will allow broadcasters in “neutral territories” to tell more meaningful stories throughout the year, while he also cites the importance of the TikTok partnership for helping new audiences to understand the sport.

For now, though, a measure of success may simply be seeing the next six weeks of competition take place uninterrupted. Beyond that, Morel remains confident that the work done and the deals struck during the pandemic have laid the groundwork for his team to achieve that vision he keeps returning to.

“There’s definitely a sense that we built a lot of the plan and the vision quite early on in my first year,” he considers. “Then Covid hits and it’s all about preserving.

“We feel that we are now enabling ourselves slowly but surely to deliver on the vision. So [we are] excited, but also extremely vigilant that this is a fragile situation. It didn’t say that on the brochure when I joined, but you have to be ready for the unexpected. And we are.

“So it’s excitement but cautious optimism.”

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