Should The Ashes Be Listed?

On Friday, a Department of Culture, Media & Sport consultation based around their Review of Listed Events closed.
This consultation was based around some preliminary suggestions on the updating of the list of sporting (and other cultural) events for which either live free-to-air TV coverage, or recorded highlights should be made available.
The big issue seems to have revolved around the inclusion of cricket’s home Ashes Test series on the list of events that should be televised live on free-to-air television.
Just to be clear, this is a once every four years tournament latterly consisting of five Tests, with previous series in England taking place in 2005 and 2009.
Let’s be clear – if there’s a sports body who wants their event to be included on this list, I’ve yet to hear it. While the IOC specifically states in its Charter (section 49, paragraph 1):
The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different
media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.

Most bodies do not necessarily make such claims. In some countries, for example, you will have to subscribe to pay TV to watch every game in the FIFA World Cup Finals. It’s usually the case that pay TV broadcasters can afford to pay more for sports rigths. At the very least, having more potential bidders in the game mean that rights will earn them more whoever wins the rights.
So perhaps understandably, the ECB has been robustly opposing the inclusion of The Ashes on the list.
They argue that were they to be forced to sell The Ashes to a free-to-air broadcaster, they’d lose £137.4m for the 2014-2017 contract period – a period that includes one Ashes tournament. This seemingly represents a 48% drop in overall domestic revenues, even accounting for any upside in increased sponsorship awareness.
In other words, those five matches are worth £27m each!
Is that a believable figure? I don’t think so. Football, for example, is far more popular on Sky Sports, yet those games cost something like £3.8m on average. Certainly, that is an average figure, and Sky’s coverage of a single match is around three hours rather than five days. But it just doesn’t add up to me.
The ECB may well have conducted plenty of independent research into these values, but is nearly half the value of all domestic cricket over a four year period due to five matches?
In any case, the ECB needs to face up to a significant falling off of interest in the game. It’s a disgrace that the only live cricket on UK free-to-air television is the current IPL coverage on ITV4.
Does the ECB really think that they can generate interest in the game without gaining widespread coverage of it? You can go into schools as much as you like, but unless kids can see their heroes, they’re not going to want to play the game.
And I’m sure none of Sky’s cash is just going to bolster overseas players’ salaries.
There’s a legitimate question about what free-to-air broadcasters like the BBC or Channel 4 can or would pay for Test cricket these days. There are questions about fitting the coverage in – largely irrelevant as aside from other sporting obligations both the BBC and Channel 4 could easily ditch their entire daytime schedules without loss. What they really mean is that cricket has been gone from free-to-air TV for such a long time now, that there’s already a lack of audience interest.
This downward spiral will only continue unless some live coverage is carried free-to-air. Nearly every other sport knows this. Compare and contrast with Rugby Union which saw nearly 6m people watching France v England on Saturday night. Six Nations fixtures, with the exception of Wales in the proposed list, aren’t Listed. Yet rugby realises packed audiences, massive interest in the game, which extends down to club level, and wide exposure through a mix of premium and free-to-air coverage.
The ECB has even failed to sell Twenty20 fixtures to a free-to-air broadcaster. I’m certain that the BBC or Channel 4 would have bitten their hand off to gain solely those rights. But no – the ECB sold them to Sky too.
(It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that Sky could still buy the rights to Ashes fixtures and run them free-to-air on a channel such as Sky 3 on Freeview. In Italy, Sky there has Olympic rights which will be broadcast free-to-air).
The ECB runs scare stories about Sky losing all interest in Test cricket without The Ashes despite the fact that it’d almost certainly have the Australian hosted event every four years as well as all other Test cricket. This is the ECB snobbishly looking with a look at distain at the IPL and saying never…
The other issue the ECB needs to face up to is the forthcoming Ofcom requirement that Sky wholesales sports channels at cheaper prices to competitors such as BT and Virgin Media. Sky will fight these rules all the way, but assuming that they come to pass, that’s likely to reduce the amount that Sky can pay for sports rights anyway. So come what may, the ECB is going to be looking at a reduced revenues for their next contract.
What’s not clear to me at the moment is whether this whole DCMS process will be completed prior to the election, or whether it gets kicked into the long grass. A cynic might suggest that the Conservatives would be Murdoch-friendly – that’s certainly the implication. But it’s not quite as straightforward as that, and then there’s the possibility of a hung Parliament (Vince Cable for Chancellor of the Exchequor anyone?).
The long and short of it is that if more people don’t gain exposure to Test cricket, the value of those rights will diminish. Audiences will get smaller, and frankly, if someone sets up a Packer/IPL type of series, then that’ll be the ECB’s fault.

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