Free to Air Cricket

Today brings some interesting news, with the ECB actually allowing some free-to-air cricket on TV screens in the future. The BBC has done a deal to see the return of cricket to its channels for the first time since 1999.

You will recall that in 1998, Channel 4 secured the rights to most international cricket, notably including Test cricket. One Test was aired on Sky, who until that point had made do with smaller competitions and notably overseas tours.

In many respects Channel 4 really improved TV coverage, and despite some awkward business of trying to show both cricket and Channel 4 Racing on the same afternoons (with Film 4 often being used as an overspill channel), they were very successful.

In its final season Channel 4 saw a peak audience of over 7m watch England win the 2005 Ashes. Thousands turned out for an open-top bus parade that ended in Trafalgar Square.

Cricket was on top.

And then, for the most part, it disappeared from our screens. Sky had outbid Channel 4 for exclusive coverage of all domestic cricket. The ECB had taken Sky’s cash ahead of any interest in keeping the game alive.

The ECB continued to work exclusively with Sky renewing deals right through until 2019.

The only free-to-air cricket that appeared on our screens were Channel 5’s highlights packages and some IPL cricket on ITV4 (Which has since also moved to Sky). There’d be an occasional tourist game against Scotland on the red button but that was it.

Earlier this year, the BBC did show highlights of the ICC Trophy, and we have also seen some in-game digital clips appear on the BBC website. But for live cricket, you “only” had the unparalleled Test Match Special.

In the meantime participation in cricket had fallen, and most counties were now propped up financially by the ECB.

T20 had come along, and while the riches of the Indian Premier League might seem impossible to replicate in Britain, the success of Australia’s Big Bash seemed distinctly replicable.

That tournament runs for 35 nights in a row on free-to-air Channel Ten, garnering significant audiences for its city-based franchise structure. (It should be noted that Channel Ten is suffering severe financial pressures currently, and either rival Channel Nine will win the rights next time around, or some of the games may go subscription only).

So the ECB has now conjoured up a city-based franchise format, meaning that some big counties will miss out and need to be paid off. That also means that the new format will be in addition to the existing T20 Blast series which will continue to be competed at county level.

And then of course there are the existing four day County Championship games as well as one day competitions, all of which need to be squeezed into the cricket season.

Add into the mix central contracts, extended period of Big Bash, IPL, one-day internationals, T20 internationals and Tests, all of this means that big names are rarely seen in their “home” counties.

Still, that’s the mess of contemporary cricket.

Which all brings us to today’s news that the BBC has done a deal for cricket with the ECB. It doesn’t start until 2020, because Sky still has exclusivity until 2019. But the BBC will be showing:

  • Two England men’s home T20s (of a total of 4-6?)
  • One England women’s home T20
  • 10 matches from the domestic men’s T20 city-based franchise series, including the final (out of a total of 36 matches, all of which will be on Sky)
  • Up to 8 matchs from the women’s T20 city-based franchise series including the final
  • Highlights of home Tests, One Day Internationals and T20 Internationals
  • Highlights of women’s internationals
  • Digital clips of men and women’s internationals, plus County Championship, One-Day Cup and T20 matches
  • Test Match Special wins radio rights to all competitions through until 2024

So the live coverage will exclusively be T20 formats, with other competitions receiving highlights treatment.

Sky has regained rights to everything else, including exclusive live coverage of home Tests. BT Sport, which is thought to have bid, has not come away with any rights. Notably, it has bought rights to Australian cricket meaning that it will be the exclusive rights holder to the Ashes Tour this winter (assuming the massive pay dispute there is sorted out).

In total, the deal is said to be worth £1.1bn over five years – quite a jump from previous deals, with Sky’s last deal £260m over four years, and then extended a further two. That said, there wasn’t significant growth over the last two deals. This all suggests Sky sees a great opportunity in the new T20 competition.

Still, this all goes to show that getting eyeballs in front of your sport is essential if you want to see any significant growth in it. And perhaps other sports will learn from this.

The ECB has learnt the hard way.