sky sports

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.

Sky Sports Revamp

Sky Sports is reportedly getting a bit of a makeover, losing the numbered channels currently known as Sky Sports 1-5, and instead gaining sports-specific channels.

Currently the channels are roughly being used as follows:

Sky Sports 1 – Football
Sky Sports 2 – Cricket, Rugby, Football
Sky Sports 3 – Football, Tennis
Sky Sports 4 – Golf
Sky Sports 5 – Football
Sky Sports News
Sky Sports F1 – F1
Sky Sports Mix – (Available on cheaper non-sports Sky tiers) Simulcast of one of the above, Dutch/Spanish Football or smaller sports like Netball, Drone Flying etc.

It sounds like this list is going to be rationalised into:

Sky Sports Football 1/Premier League
Sky Sports Football 2/Football League/Spanish etc.
Sky Sports Cricket
Sky Sports Golf
Sky Sports Arena (Including Rugby and Tennis)
Sky Sports F1
Sky Sports News
Sky Sports Mix (Assuming this continues)

In some respects, this simplifies things a little. It seems that what Sky wants to be able to do is offer a cheaper entry to its sports packages. Recall that BT Sport retail its sports offerings from as little as £5 a month for a streaming package, and £7.50 for those with Sky (and a BT Broadband internet connection).

Currently the cheapest way of getting Sky Sports on TV is £49.50 a month (based on taking the cheapest Sky Original Bundle before adding the full Sky Sports pack to it, with Sky only offering packages with their new Sky Q box). According to The Guardian, this will allow Sky to charge £18 for its cheapest partial sports offering.

But I do foresee a few problems with this plan.

First of all, it seems likely that the cheapest offering will not be football, rights costs for which have shot up. I would anticipate that either cricket or golf will be the cheapest offerings.

Then there’s the issue of sustaining full channels of some of these sports around the clock year long. Sky Sports F1 is something of a joke outside the season, and is largely filled with filler outside of race weekends. Quite why it didn’t become a broader motor-sport channel has never been obvious to me.

You also have the issue of major sports that don’t fit in. What about Rugby League or NFL, both of which have significant followings and carriage deals with Sky.

But more to the point, as someone who takes the full Sky Sports package, I would love to pay less and drop sports I’m not interested in. Namely Sky Sports Golf and the misery that is Sky Sports F1 (Seriously, why would I pay to hear Martin Brundle?).

At time of writing, it’s not clear when these new packages will go live, and I’ve not seen the price breakdowns across the different packages.

There’s also the not insignificant matter of third parties who currently get Sky Sports 1 and 2 on a wholesale basis. Although formal “must-offer” conditions have previously been removed, Ofcom has said that it would take a keen interest in any move that removed Premier League football from other platforms.

It would seem like that Sky would continue to retail football. But nearly all Sky’s major sport appears on those Sky Sports 1 and 2 currently – so even if golf usually finds its home on Sky Sports 4, it gets a bump up during, say, The Masters or the Ryder Cup. Lions rugby is on Sky Sports 1 right now, and next week England’s Test series against South Africa will start on Sky Sports 2.

While the Premier League channel might be one, what would the second be? At the moment, if I subscribe to, say, Sky Sports on BT TV, I can watch Premier League football, Test cricket and Lions rugby. What happens in the future? The easy answer would be for Sky to allow its channels to be retailed more fully on other platforms. (I did also wonder if the recent news about Sky and Virgin sharing Sky’s targeted advertising technology might mean that Sky Atlantic was made available to Virgin Media homes?). But we shall have to wait and see.

With the Fox takeover of Sky still in the balance following yesterday’s news that it’s being referred to the competition authorities, it will be interesting to see how Sky plays this.

Broadcasting Cricket

3 May 2009

There are two stories worth talking about in the world of broadcast cricket – a subject I’m only marginally less interested in than in broadcasting football. (See this recent piece for example.)

First of all, Jonathan Agnew interviewed the ECB’s Chief Executive Tom Harrison last Thursday during lunch in the final Ashes Test. There is always plenty to discuss in the cricketing world, but Agnew certainly got onto television coverage of the game. There was some talk about “terrestrial” coverage – I think we can say “free-to-air” is more appropriate – and Harrison said that it was part of their thinking. However there were two key things that he mentioned. The first was there wouldn’t be any change in coverage of the game until 2020 – with the current Sky deal running until the end of the 2019 season. That would seem to discount the idea that separate rights would be sold to an amended T20 competition (I suspect Sky thinks they already have those rights!).

The other thing he said was that in retrospect, the 2004 deal that saw Channel 4 lose all its cricket rights was still a good thing for the game.

Hmm. Remind me again when the open top bus tour of the 2015 Ashes winners is happening again? You simply couldn’t hold such a celebration today, because as much as any cricket fan might wish it, this Ashes series has passed most of the population by.

Which brings me the second major story that broke over the weekend. BT Sport has pitched in and won the rights to Australian cricket from 2016-2021 from Cricket Australia. Notably, this includes the 2017/18 Ashes series in Australia. But it also includes all the other Australian home international series as well as their T20 Big Bash series.

A few thoughts come from this:

  • This is the first time in a long time that Sky’s cricket monopoly has been breached. Sure, the Caribbean T20 series has been on a few different channels (Eurosport and currently BT Sport), and the IPL was on ITV4 for a number of years before Sky bought it up. But essentially every series involving a Test nation has been Sky exclusive for a long time now.
  • In turn that means that a die-hard cricket fan will need a BT Sport subscription as well as Sky. That’s a costly add-on if you’re not on BT Broadband.
  • Cricket fans are wealthier (look at all those banking and luxury car ads) so BT is perhaps on safer ground with this.
  • But cricket in Australia takes place at a terrible time of day from a UK perspective. So live TV isn’t always the most valuable.
  • However it seems that BT is taking the highlights rights too. They’re planning on putting them on BT Showcase (where they’ll also air a free-to-air weekly Big Bash fixture during that competition. That would seem to mean no Channel 5 highlights. (Although Sky shows Test highlights alongside Channel 5, so the two may not be mutually exclusive).
  • And of course all this brings BT into play for the next big ECB cricket contract. I suspect that this will turn a few heads at the ECB, and while they may say pleasant things about wanting to reach a wider audience, they’ll be faced with Sky and BT Sport waving big chequebooks at them when those rights negotiations begin.
  • Finally, does this suggest that Sky’s massively increased Premier League costs are really beginning to bite? Which sports are next on BT’s shopping list? Golf? Men’s tennis? Rugby League? NFL? F1? Er, WWE?

In the meantime, BT had better start raising the profile of BT Showcase. That means getting carriage on other platforms – notably Sky* – and making it a bit more visible. I’m not convinced that a channel that only very rarely pops into life for a random Champions’ League game or Aviva Premiership rugby fixture will gain much in the way of traction. At least Sky’s Pick TV has a full schedule.

(They’ve today announced – two days before the game – that the second leg of the FC Brugges v Man Utd Champions’ League qualifier will be free-to-air on BT Showcase. That’s before the channel has carriage on either Virgin Media (where it’s at least promised) and Sky. Assuming Man Utd qualify, will that be the one fixture for the season featuring them? And is two days enough notice? I assume there’ll be some press advertising to back this up in the coming couple of days.)

And it’ll be interesting to see any audience figures from BT Sport once the Champions’ League gets underway properly.

*I note that “AMC from BT” has arrived on Sky, so there’s no real reason for them not putting Showcase up there too.

The Champions’ League – Part One

On Tuesday we will hear what BT has in store for its coverage of the Champions’ League and Europa League. It outbid Sky and ITV to win exclusive rights for the next three seasons.

The expectation is that they’ll announce Gary Lineker as co-presenting with Jake Humphries over Tuesday and Wednesday nights, with a £5 per month price-point for the package.

What that means for fans (and sponsors) is that there’ll be relatively little free European football on-air. At the time the bid was won, BT said that at least one fixture involving each British club in the competition will be available free-to-air on a specially set-up Freeview channel – BT Sport Showcase. This will include the final.

But whether they’ll offer the attractive games viewers want to see seems less clear. Man Utd v Zenit St Petersburg isn’t exactly a crowd pleaser, but would fulfill BT’s promise.

In the meantime Sky Sports has posted a blog that seems to say something along the lines of “We might have lost the Champions’ League, but nobody’s watching it any more and they only care about the Premier League, so we don’t really care.” Sour grapes anyone? The Guardian has more coverage here.

Is there too much Champions’ League football? Probably.

Are audiences down? Well the numbers say so.

Is this because English clubs haven’t done so well in the last couple of years? Er, I would think so.

Sky Sport’s audience at the weekend for the final might have been lower this year than last year, but it’s not clear to me that’s anything more than to do with the clubs competing. Personally I want to see Messi and co. I’m not convinced that Saturday night is the right time for the final, and wonder whether returning to Wednesday nights would see a stronger overall audience.

But I do think that UEFA is going to be the loser by selling exclusively to BT. Remember the OnDigital years? ITV had the Champions’ League exclusively then, and it wasn’t enough to save the platform. So yes, people do care more about the Premier League than the Champions’ League.

The football watching audience is divided into the following segments:

a. Free-to-air only. Match of the Day; England internationals on ITV; World Cups; Euros.

b. BT subscribers. Take BT Sport because they already have BT Broadband, so why wouldn’t they?

c. Sky Sports subscribers. Like the substantial Premier League offering.

d. Sky Sports + BT Sports. Pay for Sky Sports first of all, and then either get BT Sports free because of their broadband package, or pay because of the additional games it offers (other sports like rugby come into play here).

(e. BT Sports subscriber. Pay for BT Sport but aren’t BT Broadband subscribers. Probably only rugby or Moto GP fans, and not really football fans.)

We now need a couple of new segments:

f. Sky Sports + BT Sports + BT Sports Europe. Football die hards paying some more money for a complete football offering. This is probably the key constituent for the success of BT Sports Europe.

g. BT Sports + BT Sports Europe. Can anyone who doesn’t otherwise pay for football be persuaded to fork out £5 (or whatever) a month? This will be a small segment.

However the Champions’ League is vital for the top flight Premier League clubs. That’s why the big “four” are always fighting to be in it. Indeed, if they’re not then they’re not going to be able to attract the right players. Top players want to play in the Champions’ League.

It’ll be interesting to see how BT pitch their offering. They need to have the satellite capacity for Sky and Virgin subscribers to be able to watch as they can do now with BT Sports. And they need to persuade a lot of people to part with actual money to watch it.

I know that for me, this means my sports TV costs are going up. Sky has already announced price increases (the massive bids they made to retain Premier League rights ensured this), and now I’m facing £5 or more a month if I want to watch Arsenal in Europe (I do).

And then there’s the question of a monthly subscription fee when matches aren’t evenly spread out across the year. For example in the 2014/15 season, there was a single match in June – the final. July and August saw qualifiers – of interest to fans of the 4th place Premier League club, but few others. The group stage kicked off in September but rounds of the competition are not evenly distributed. There are no games at all in January. So how will subscribers deal with that? Do we all cancel mid-December and re-subscribe in mid-February? The Europa league has more games, and slightly more rounds to add into this mix.

In the meantime, we can look forward to a Media Guardian article this time next year explaining to us that the cumulative audience for the Champions’ League Final has fallen by x% (where x is a big number).

But let’s see what BT says tomorrow.

[Update: Here’s my follow-up piece.]