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Trends & Insights | Blog

Beyond the pitch: Six Nations and social media

February 16, 2024


Rugby - a sport steeped in 120 years of tradition - demands grit, speed, and unwavering camaraderie. Fans crave the rush, crush, and the gladiatorial energy unmatched in any other arena. But is this enough to pull in new fans in today's rapidly evolving digital media landscape?

Verity Hesketh

Content Manager

The Six Nations Rugby Championship dates back to 1882 and is regarded globally as both rugby’s greatest showcase and most brutish menace.

Rugby Union only transitioned to professional status 30 years ago – a delay seemingly outpaced by other sports, including its close cousin Rugby League. Eventually, Rugby Union’s professional status was hastened by the advent of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports debut, and a growing restlessness amongst players, culminating in the now-infamous Will Carling speech (“57 old farts” - IYKYK).

In recent years, as the tectonic plates of the media have shifted, vulnerabilities in the sport's business model have been exposed. Economic strain and a global pandemic have shone a harsh light on fundamental issues in rugby’s marketing plan:

  • While linear TV offered equal airtime, the rise of on-demand platforms and apps has created a landscape where only the nimblest survive. Rugby, unfortunately, hasn't kept pace
  • The URC (Celtic League) was taken over by a big financial institution who are trying to overhaul the digital experience. However, simple information like team and player statistics used for Fantasy Rugby League are hard to access
  • Rugby's core audience, traditionally skewed towards the upper-middle class, is experiencing a decline. Attracting new and diverse demographics remains a significant hurdle. The sport, until recently, enjoyed a comfortable existence within the familiar confines of its privately educated fanbase. This base, introduced to the sport from a young age, transitioned from players to passionate armchair fans – fuelling ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and an overall vibrant atmosphere. However, this comfortable bubble is no longer sustainable
  • Compared to other commercially astute sports, rugby's production and entertainment value often fall short, with the match day experience not necessarily matching the sport’s high ticket prices. The bankruptcy of several premiership clubs has served as a wake-up call

Can the tournament leverage social platforms, like Twitter and TikTok, to capture the sport's raw energy – attracting new fans and engaging existing ones? Join us as we explore how, in our digital age, the Six Nations can adapt and thrive.

TikTok's brand partnership

This year, TikTok has secured official fan partnership rights for both the Men's and Women's Guinness Six Nations Championships. This strategic collaboration promises to unlock unparalleled access and engagement for rugby fans across the globe, while simultaneously promoting online safety through TikTok's impactful #SwipeOutHate campaign.

TikTok has made several significant recent tie-ins with major sporting events. In 2023, the platform entered a first-of-its-kind collaboration with FIFA, covering the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, and has partnered with Wimbledon for two years running.

The partnership ushers in a new era of Six Nations coverage on TikTok. Fans can expect a dedicated #SixNationsRugby Search Hub, a one-stop destination for real-time match highlights, training clips, fan reactions, and exclusive creator content. This immersive hub will offer a comprehensive and engaging experience, catering to both loyal supporters and curious newcomers.

Hot on the heels of recent shocking events, with players and referees becoming subjects of online hate speech, discrimination, and harmful content, TikTok will leverage the #SwipeOutHate campaign to educate fans about its robust safety features. This proactive approach aims to ensure a positive and inclusive environment throughout Six Nations, and goes hand-in-hand with the Union’s recent use of advanced AI technology to filter, block, delete, and, if needed, report cases.

The Six Nations Rugby partnership extends beyond TikTok's platform, encompassing a multi-channel advertising campaign across out-of-home, print, and social media channels in key Six Nations markets. This strategic, cross-platform approach will extend the reach of the Championships, attracting new fans and further amplifying the tournament's global appeal.

TikTok's partnership with Six Nations Rugby has already undeniably helped both the men's and women's game to attract new fans. The #SixNationsRugby hashtag - the home of Guinness Six Nations content in-app - currently stands at over nine billion views, and the official @sixnationsrugby channel has reached over half a million followers. The #womensrugby TikTok hashtag has over 900 million views, with 159,000 followers of the @womenssixnations TikTok channel, and 2.3 million likes so far.

Netflix: Full Contact

Netflix's docuseries, 'Six Nations: Full Contact', has undoubtedly helped to thrust not only the men’s Six Nations, but the sport of rugby itself into the global spotlight. 

Although many of the faces that Netflix chose to feature prominently during the series are not competing in this year’s Six Nations, the show's secret lay in its less polished moments, with raw, unscripted intervals. For example, when producers chose to show the indomitable spirit of French defence coach Sean Edwards, his bulldog tenacity and hilariously mangled French were oddly endearing – proving that unfiltered reality trumps celebrity every time. He might be the world’s best defence coach, but he still gives “Ou est le bibliotheque?” vibes whenever he rallies his team. 

However, beyond genuine moments like these, much of the series felt formulaic. Its decision to give equal airtime to six squads across two months meant the series felt overcrowded and lacked depth, giving the impression of a glorified match highlights package.

Rugby players are routinely drilled in media training at the start of their careers. While it serves a purpose, it often falls flat. Fans yearn for authenticity, as evidenced by social media stars like Joe Marler, Max Lahiff, and Nick Cummins. Their unfiltered humour during interviews shines, showcasing the vibrant personalities that emerge when they escape the rigid PR script. This disconnect creates friction, with some fans grumbling about restrictive coach control over media access. Full Contact has attempted to bridge this gap, but careful editing masked underlying hesitation from teams wary of giving genuine behind-the-scenes glimpses – like dressing room chats, walking out of the tunnel, or what really happens when a player gets sent off.

In today's commercially-driven competition, access is everything. Just look at the success of Arsenal's "All or Nothing" documentary or the F1’s "Drive to Survive". Both thrived on unprecedented access, offering fans an intimate glimpse into the team's inner workings.

Rugby is missing a trick, as younger audiences highly value authenticity and will find new ways to navigate and explore legacies and traditions. They expect the media they engage with to keep pace with these expectations in spontaneous and innovative ways.

Netflix crews have already been spied filming the first fixtures of the men’s Six Nations last week. Like F1, the challenge for rugby lies in capitalising on this newfound momentum. Consistent, engaging content beyond tournament windows is crucial. Social media must go beyond highlight reels –showcasing the personalities, rivalries, and unfiltered human stories that make rugby tick.

The blueprint is there. Now, it's up to unions, teams, and media to build on this foundation. Regular rugby fans are used to press conferences’ slick certainty. The International Rugby Board needs to keep the door open now it’s been brave enough to give the Netflix crews some access.

Creators vs. pundits

Engaging a younger, more diverse audience in rugby and the Six Nations presents a challenge, but one with an obvious solution: Leveraging the power of content creators.

Look no further than the success of the PDC World Darts Championship for inspiration. Creators like Ethan Payne ('Behzinga' of the Sidemen) enthralled audiences with his pre-match nine-dart challenge, boosting the PDC's YouTube channel. 

This isn't just a fad. Content creators aren't just reaching young audiences who ditched traditional media (such as print and broadcast); they're disrupting the mainstream and building communities beyond social media. No longer do we have the same ex-pro commentary dominating sports media. Creators have shaken things up, blurring the lines between traditional and online content.

The future of Six Nations on social media

Forget mud-and-glory clichés. The secret sauce of rugby's social strategy lies in raw, real storytelling. Even American football giants flinch at rugby's 80-minute, no-pads brawl. It's brutal, it's beautiful, it's often baffling (even with a rulebook). For rugby to achieve success in this arena, it’s essential to embrace that. 

Fans crave authenticity, not staged perfection. Look at other sports soaring with genuine narratives, then pair that with a killer digital strategy – that's the game-winning ticket to rugby's online glory.

If you have any questions or comments, please get in touch by emailing sport@battenhall.com – we’d love to hear from you.