Martin Bayfield: Six Nations must stay on free-to-air TV – but coverage needs to improve

Martin Bayfield/Martin Bayfield: Six Nations must stay on free-to-air TV – but coverage needs to improve
Martin Bayfield believes the Six Nations would be best served with one dedicated terrestrial broadcaster - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

Instead of patrolling pitchside with microphone in hand, Martin Bayfield has for the first time in over a decade enjoyed this year’s Guinness Six Nations Championship as a punter, not a broadcaster.

The former England and British and Irish Lions lock forward has been a regular and towering presence on our screens since joining ITV’s rugby team for their World Cup coverage in 2007.

Having also worked for the BBC and, since 2013, in the pay-TV world – first as a presenter and reporter for BT Sport and now TNT Sports for their coverage of the Premiership and Champions Cup rugby – Bayfield’s judgment benefits from having feet in many camps.

His view therefore adds a fresh perspective to the debate about the broadcasting future of the championship, which re-opened when outgoing BBC director of sport Barbara Slater admitted last November that the BBC may not be able to continue to afford the Six Nations’ broadcast rights, which it currently shares with ITV in a deal that lasts until next year.

Bayfield, who won 31 caps for England and three for the Lions on the tour of New Zealand in 1993, is unequivocal. He believes the Six Nations should remain on terrestrial television but its coverage requires a seismic overhaul.

And rather than continuing to split it between BBC and ITV, Bayfield believes the viewers would be best served with the championship coming under one roof, allowing the broadcaster to build a consistent narrative across the seven weeks.

“Rugby just can’t hide away and only jump out from behind a tree and say, ‘Here we are!’ and then disappear again. It needs oxygen otherwise it is just going to fail,” said Bayfield.

“The Six Nations has to be free-to-air and has to be one platform so you have one focus, one message, one tone. I don’t know if I am too old-fashioned, but I want to be able to hear the theme tune and think, ‘That’s the Six Nations’ and walk in from the other room to watch, a bit like when the Rugby Special music started, and everyone would sit down and watch it.

“I know that people view things differently and I know that the ‘appointment to view’ has almost gone, but live sport is one of the only things left that people sit down together and watch live.

“I work as a freelancer, so I don’t have a drum to bang with ITV. It doesn’t bother me either way. My views are not based on who I want to work for, but what is for the good of the game. If the game is strong, the rest of us benefit.

“You have to have a good build-up but even more important is having good analysis afterwards, and access to the game through the week. Every Six Nations game should be like a mini Super Bowl. You have press conferences, you have interviews with players, and superstars who enjoy rugby.

“We also need to embrace new media to capture every age group because that is what rugby is about. At the moment the only people who seem to be doing it are podcasters. They have access to these people. Why aren’t the TV companies doing that?”

Watching Ireland’s victory over Wales on ITV followed by Scotland’s Calcutta Cup triumph on BBC last Saturday, underscored Bayfield’s frustration at the lack of alignment in the coverage.

“It was nothing to do with the pundits or the presenters but in the build-up to the Calcutta Cup match, the BBC basically did an hour’s uninterrupted build-up to the game, which was absolutely brilliant,” he added.

“Ugo [Monye], Sam [Warburton] and John Barclay were exceptional in the build-up and the post-match analysis was also some of the best you would see. In comparison, the Ireland versus Wales game on ITV also had really good pundits – Drico [Brian O’Driscoll], Jamie Roberts and Rory Best.

Duhan van der Merwe/Martin Bayfield: Six Nations must stay on free-to-air TV – but coverage needs to improve
Bayfield was impressed by BBC's coverage of the Calcutta Cup because it was allowed to flow without the interruption of adverts - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

“But they were looking at it in three- or four-minute chunks and then there was an advert. Then another three- or four-minute chunk and another advert. So, the quality is on uneven footing because of the time you can devote to it. That’s what really struck me there and that’s what people want.

“Of course, if you go behind the paywall, you can always give it the Netflix treatment like their Drive to Survive series on F1, or they could devote a whole channel to it. If it was on Sky Sports, they would likely have a Six Nations channel for the whole seven weeks.

“There’s pros and cons, but ultimately you want as many eyeballs on it as you can and of course that only comes from terrestrial TV, who can deliver millions rather than just hundreds of thousands.

“But if it remains on terrestrial TV, they have to give it the full works, not just a brief build-up and then five minutes after the game before saying that they are off to the Ant and Dec show. It has got to be given that continual narrative all the way through so having it on one channel would be so much better.”

The in-house TV mantra of being a ‘broadcaster’, not a ‘narrowcaster’, when it comes to rugby coverage is another bugbear of Bayfield. Rather than dumb down the content and analysis to appeal to a wider audience, he believes the game should instead champion its complexities.

“I keep hearing this phrase, ‘Oh, we’ve got to broadcast to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “We’ve got to assume that people watching don’t know anything about rugby.

Martin Bayfield takes on France in 1995/Martin Bayfield: Six Nations must stay on free-to-air TV – but coverage needs to improve
Bayfield won 31 caps for England back in the days when the Six Nations was exclusively shown on the BBC - Chris Cole/Allsport

“I would turn that on his head. I can still remember watching Rhona Martin throwing the ‘stone of destiny’ to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics curling final at Salt Lake City in 2002. I didn’t know anything about curling. Neither did anyone. But by the time we went to work the following morning, slightly bleary-eyed from staying up to watch it, we were all experts.

“What we want is people going to work talking about the kicking style of Thomas Ramos and how he likes to have the valve on the ball pointing away from his boot. We need to get the best analysts there, not just the big names but people who can get the message across and people who can sell the game.

“It is also not just about the 80 minutes on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. We need coverage throughout the week, previewing and reviewing games.

“We have to find ways of letting people know how big the Six Nations is. It is the tournament that every other rugby-playing country would love to be part of.

“The Rugby Championship in the southern hemisphere would love to be like the Six Nations, but it is never going to be. Let’s make the Six Nations big. It has to be on one channel and a properly structured calendar, where each game is given its importance.

“We need to get people to fall in love with our game and to do that we also need to have some fun.”