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If the men don't want it, give the opportunity to the women

By Ben Smith
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images and Catherine Ivill - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

The most important platform for high value, long form entertainment in the digital age is undoubtably Netflix.


The streaming giant wields the power of distribution over film and television like no other company in history, with the ability to change the fortunes of just about anything it seems.

A niche Korean TV series called Squid Game became a global sensation in late 2021, becoming the most watched series of all time on the platform.

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The power of distribution that Netflix has enabled a comparatively low budget non-English speaking show to flourish and reach an audience magnitudes larger than its local Korean one.

With 231 million paying subscribers, that can run up to four users under each account, Netflix’s audience and reach scales into the hundreds of millions.

For rugby union, which has landed a Netflix documentary series in the upcoming Six Nations, it is a pivotal moment that could boost the game’s popularity.

The national unions involved will be flooded with newcomers from corners they did not think was possible if it is a success.


The live TV audience for Scotland’s Six Nations clash with England in 2021 was reported to peak at 8.7 million viewers on ITV.

If the Netflix series captivates 10 per cent of the overall audience on the platform, that exposure will be 3x or 4x larger than a live game on terrestrial TV. If it goes well, it will be 10x or more.

The opportunity here is immense to revive interest in the game and particularly draw in fans from the North American market, which make up nearly a third of all Netflix subs.

Demographically the game has struggled to build fans with Generation Z. Netflix is still the most popular source of video consumption for that generation.


Rugby does not really exist in the realm of Netflix which makes this Six Nations documentary series a huge opportunity to find some footing with a youthful audience.

Rumblings are already afoot that coaches and players alike are unsettled at having no editorial control over the documentary, threatening to derail the series before it is even shot.

Believe it or not, coaches are not producers or directors of smash hit shows so probably shouldn’t have control. If they leave it to those that are, it might have a chance to be.

Fears and insecurities over how they will be perceived are natural but the reality is unlikely to be as harmful as they fear. Netflix is after a successful series and in that sense interests are aligned.

Viewers expect a documentary series to have some warts, particularly a behind-the-scenes sports documentary. What matters more than what is said is whether it triggers the right emotions with viewers, and that is what the experts will attempt to do.

Wales coach Warren Gatland has expressed concerns about the language that will be used and labelled it as potentially ‘inappropriate’. Dropping a few f-bombs or unsavoury comments in a highly emotional pre-game speech is going to harm someone’s reputation far less than what they think.

Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus telling his players to “physically f*** up” the Japanese in his dressing room speech before the World Cup quarter-final in 2019 did not harm his popularity globally. It may have made him more likeable.

It wasn’t what he said but rather what he was trying to do, which was sharpen his side’s mental approach and inspire them to perform with a passionate speech.

What arguably did more harm to his image, outside of South Africa at least, was his Twitter escapades nitpicking refereeing calls after losses, which again was more about the perception of what he was trying to do than what he was actually saying.

It wasn’t the fly-on-the-wall documentary style footage that potentially harmed his popularity, it was social media use, something in his control.

The worrisome reaction by some of the Six Nations teams is perhaps the typical rugby response you would expect, but if the men’s game is unwise enough to bungle this opportunity then maybe the women’s game can take it instead.

A Netflix series for the Women’s Six Nations would be a lightening bolt for the women’s game after a successful Rugby World Cup last November which drew in many new fans.

It would provide the global platform for the players to explode in popularity from where they are now. The players in the women’s game seem more open, and natural in front of a camera than the men, and may even offer a more entertaining series.

If the men’s game continues to shuts itself off from the world at a time when the women’s opens up to it, what could both look like 10 years down the line?

Is it conceivable that the women’s game could tap into a much broader, much wider fanbase than the men’s game? Certainly a Netflix series would be a catalyst to spark that trend.

The Black Ferns supporters that turned out to watch the World Cup in New Zealand were not one-in-the-same with the All Blacks fans, reportedly 70 per cent had never been to a game before.

That is an astounding insight with much larger ramifications. The two versions of the same game could end up with largely separate supporter bases dependent on how they go about growing them.

The men’s game has a head start but his an aging viewership. The women’s game is embryonic in it’s professional era and thus is primed for greater growth.

The one that embraces the digital age on the largest platforms, like Netflix, YouTube and TikTok, is likely to end up the bigger winner. So far the men’s game has been behind the eight ball on all three over the last decade, being late to embrace the social media networks.

If Netflix can make a Korean-language TV show the world’s most popular hit, what can it do for rugby?

If the men don’t want this and lack the foresight to see the opportunity, hand the opportunity over to the women and see what happens.


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