The ECB has a problem. As the third Ashes Test gets underway, largely unwatched by the British public, participation in cricket continues to fall. According to Sport England’s Active People survey, just 0.6% of people ever play cricket. And this is a number that’s been in decline since the survey began measuring sports uptake.
In the meantime, they’ve looked around and seen a global explosion in the popularity of the Twenty20 form of the game. India is the most obvious example with the IPL said to be valued in excess of $3.5bn.
In Australia, the Big Bash has seen record audiences on TV and elsewhere, and an overall increase in cricket participation.
Even the Caribbean Premier League is looked at fondly.
In the UK we have the T20 Blast with 18 counties in two divisions, playing matches across the May, June and July. But there doesn’t seem to be quite the same excitement that some of the other leagues get. There’s a general view that “something must be done.”
And that something, the view says, is that we need to go to a franchise system with fewer teams. A report at the weekend suggested that there might be just 8 teams, based in big cities, and matches would be played over a shorter period.
This in itself is contentious enough. Many counties would lose out – despite actually getting decent crowds for their current T20 matches.
But the ECB is hoping that the increased value of the tournament would allow big name signings (basically the same international globe trotting journeymen who currently play T20) to come and spice up the game. This, they think, is the answer to making a bigger and more excitingly received competition.
I wouldn’t dismiss that idea completely. Fitting in all the forms of cricket we want is hard to do.
However, what I do think is idiotic is the idea of selling the whole competition, lock, stock and barrel, to Sky TV for £40m as the report suggests.
Of course Sky wants exclusivity. They “own” cricket, and they’d like that to continue. It means that anyone who wants to watch any semblance of cricket on TV has to take out a Sky subscription.
But the real reason for the success of the Big Bash? They’re on the free to air Network Ten. When they switched from pay TV in 2013, interest soared. And that becomes self-fulfilling as revenues rise, and bigger names can be attracted as there’s more money.
In India it’s different as Sony MAX owns the rights and that’s a pay TV service. But this year it was bundled in a regular package. And cricket is of course the biggest sport in India, so it’s the equivalent of live Premier League not being on free to air TV in the UK. In any case, premium pay TV tends to cost between £3-4 a month in India (based on Tata Sky’s website).
However, the idea that a revamped British competition, still only on Sky, would somehow excite the nation is naive at best, and idiotic at worst.
I’m not going to kid myself that a really big free-to-air channel would fill their summer schedules with wall to wall cricket as Network Ten in Australia is prepared to, but it seems extraordinarily short sighted of the already myopic ECB (a sports organising body only marginally less inept than FIFA), that going pay-TV only is a smart thing to do at this point in time. They desperately need BBC, ITV, C4, or [Viacom owned] C5 to take an interest. Sure, do a deal with Sky too, but at least some of the games, including the final, need to be free-to-air.
The recent Six Nations deal with the BBC and ITV is instructive. A realisation that removing sport from free-to-air TV would damage the overall value of the competition and the interest in the sport in general. Like cricket, rugby will always have a hardcore of fans, but if it wants to grow beyond them, they realise that getting exposure is as important as maximising television revenues.
If the ECB wants to have any hope of reversing that downwards chart at the top of this post, then they need to make this competition as available as possible. This is possibly a last chance saloon for the sport.