Written by Media, Sport, TV

The Ashes on TV

Yesterday evening, England won the final Test at the Oval, and doing so regained the Ashes.
It was a fine moment.
And it was a moment that I experienced via the radio listening to Test Match Special on Five Live Sports Extra.
As it happened I spent most of the weekend at the V Festival in Chelmsford where Absolute Radio had an exclusive area. What we didn’t have was a satellite dish, although thanks to the Sky Player, I was able to keep checking on the score when I wasn’t listening to the radio (and watching and listening to bands playing obviously). I’ve moaned before about Sky’s Player only being available to those Sky Sports subscribers who either buy a triple-play package from Sky or pay a supplement for an extra box – multiroom as it’s called. I’m happy with my phone and internet providers, and living by myself, I don’t need multiroom thanks very much.
But for July and August, Sky extended access to Sky Sports on the Sky Player to all subscribers meaning that all the Test cricket has been watchable via your PC.
But back to yesterday. Media Guardian this morning reports that Sky Sports’ audience peaked at 1.92m viewers as the final Australian wicket was taken. An hour or so later, 2m watched Five’s highlights of the same event.
These are both excellent numbers for the respective stations. But in 2005, when Channel 4 still carried live Test cricket, 7.4m viewers watched England win.
As I’ve made clear previously, I’ve no bone to pick with Sky who’s coverage is excellent – particularly from a technical point of view. Although I much prefer Aggers and the TMS radio team to the dull David Gower and over-eager David Lloyd (his ridiculous trailers for the laughable England XI/Stanford Superstars damp squib have permamently lowered my apppreciation of him). And Mark Nicholas on Five’s highlights is very good indeed. In the end, that’s all a matter of taste.
The key point here is that far fewer people got to see any cricket this time around. And this cannot be good for the game.
Defenders of the ECB’s short-sightedness will talk at length about how Sky’s money is being ploughed into the roots of the game. But over the same period we’ve also seen an influx of highly paid overseas players.
We should also remember that cricket is state-sponsored. Sport England gives the ECB a lot of money (details of a recent £37.8m deal can be seen here), so I think that public at large should see some benefit of its munificance.
And even if we remove the “emotional” part of the equation, in pure commercial terms, do sponsors like Vodafone, Buxton and nPower really get full value for money by having their potential audience limited?
With cricket having been off-air to the “free-to-air”* masses for a number of years now, I can’t see Test cricket making a return even if it wanted to. Channel controllers aren’t eager, getting better ratings for vapid fare like Deal or No Deal, The Weakest Link or Loose Women.
But the lack of even one-day or Twenty20 games is surely going to cause the game long-term damage.
Are more schools playing cricket than before? Or have they sold their playing fields to developers (a major issue for all school sports)? Can they afford to maintain cricket pitches and have practice nets? And even if they do have the kit, do kids aspire to be the next Freddie Flintoff or Stuart Broad? Or have they perhaps never seen them do their stuff?
Which other Test playing nations in the world have no live cricket on free-to-air television?
Football’s clearly the biggest sport in the country, and even though the Premier League is not live, there is free-to-air coverage of FA Cup, Champions’ League, Europa League, international and now Championship fixtures. Rugby sees decent pay-TV returns from the Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup fixtures, but highlights are available, and the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup are still free-to-air.
Other “minority” sports like tennis, golf, and athletics all reach much larger television audiences than cricket does, even if they only have a handful of tournaments broadcast every year.
Yes, some of those events are protected, but others aren’t and the sporting bodies, rights holders and sponsors understand the value of making at least some of their sport available to a far broader audience. Even boxing has slowly realised that they simply won’t attract a new audience in if they price the next generation of fans out.
The ECB should realise that now they’ve placed all their eggs in Sky’s basket, they run the dual risk of both losing a potential new fanbase of young cricket followers, and lose cash in the medium term as sponsors don’t reach wider audiences, while Sky can effectively hold them over a barrel next time around (if there’s nobody else interested in your sport, then you’re not going to maximise returns). It should be a matter of priority to get at least one tournament onto free-to-air television.
For slightly different reasons, horse-racing actually pays to ensure that Channel 4 continues to cover their sport. Yes – that’s for betting income purposes, but it comes down to keeping an audience interested.
But in the end, the proof will be in the pudding. In 2005, the streets of London were lined wtih thousands of people who cheered on the winning side as they paraded in an open-top bus, culminating in a packed Trafalgar Square. Will we see the same scenes this time around I wonder?
[UPDATE] Just after posting this, I notice that in fact there’ll be no open top bus tour this year:
“The team still have a packed schedule ahead of them and are flying to Belfast on Tuesday for a one-day international.”
*Some ECB defenders will point out that TV in this country isn’t “free-to-air” because we are all required to pay for a TV licence. This is true, but in the same way that car drivers have to pay a vehicle licence tax, there’s a difference between most “free-to-drive” roads and “premium” toll-roads. I also have to pay for my TV set, and electricity to run it, so that’s frankly an irrelevant point.