Sunday was an incredible day for sport. Personally, I spent quite a lot of time flicking between ITV4 and Eurosport’s coverage of Stage 9 of the Tour de France, with South Africa’s Daryl Impey winning from a breakaway on France’s national day.
But I was also watching quite a lot of cricket – especially early on during New Zealand’s innings. It was the World Cup Final, and for the first time since 2005, the national team was on free-to-air television, an agreement between Sky and Channel 4 having been hastily agreed.
Channel 4 were simulcasting Sky’s coverage of the cricket all day. At least until the British Grand Prix came on mid-afternoon. Formula One is now only live on Sky Sports, but Channel 4 has an agreement with Sky which sees them carry live coverage of British Grand Prix (they have highlights of the rest of the series), and Sky gets to carry a substantial number of Channel 4 shows in its boxset offering.
Channel 4 moved cricket coverage to More 4 during the Grand Prix. Meanwhile Sky itself, was using two of its sports channels – Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Cricket to broadcast the World Cup Final. It also put the cricket on Sky One, a channel that most Sky and Virgin Media subscribers would have had access to, even if they didn’t take the sports package.
Over on BBC One, there was the small matter of the Men’s Final at Wimbledon with Novak Djokovic taking on Roger Federer.
By mid-afternoon, I was flicking between the cycling, tennis and cricket. New Zealand seemed to have set an achievable target for England to chase. A breakaway was going to win the Tour stage, with the main General Classification riders rolling along 15 minutes behind the escapees. And it seemed to be going backwards and forwards in the tennis, as two of the greatest players of their generation fought tooth and nail.
With the Tour stage wrapped up around 4.30pm, it was back to the run chase and the tennis. England weren’t playing as comfortably as they had against Australia in the semi-final. And at Wimbledon, it was nip and tuck as the match strayed into a fourth set after a third set tie-break.
Things began to move to conclusion in both the cricket and the tennis. By now we were into a fifth set. At Wimbledon they had this year introduced a fifth set tie-break should the match get to 12-12. Federer had had two Championship points at 8-7, but the Serb had fought back and the match duly reached 12-12 and that tie-break.
At about the same time over at Lord’s, Ben Stokes was clattering his way towards an unlikely finale. In the final over of regular play, Stokes had scored an unlikely six runs scored as he was diving into the crease to make a second run, and the ball was thrown in by the New Zealand field ricocheted off his bat and ran away for four more runs!
The match had looked to be New Zealand’s with England still needing 15 into the last over. Somehow, they managed to get the scores level. There’d be a Super Over!
These events were taking place almost simultaneously. Fortunately, the Super Over takes a little more time to organise, and that turned out to be enough time for Djokovic to finally overcome Federer and win at Wimbledon.
I’m afraid I didn’t hang around for the trophy celebration, as Stokes and Jos Buttler came out to do what they could with six balls. They got to 15, including fours from Stokes and Buttler.
The final over was as nervy has anything with Jofra Archer bowling a wide first ball. New Zealand needed 16 in total – because England had scored more boundaries. When it came down to the last ball, New Zealand still needed two. A run-out secured the victory. Strictly speaking scores were tied (again), but the boundary count went in England’s favour. They’d won!
A thrilling day of live sport. What would the viewing figures be?
Overnight TV viewing figures don’t tend to come in until the following morning at around 10am.
Adding up the numbers isn’t easy, because of the varying channels that showed the sports.
If you looked at the news media, it was nearly all about the cricket. I think it was The Guardian’s Richard Williams who I saw call it a “Champagne Superova” on Twitter before everyone else jumped on the same phrase. But all the main news bulletins lead on the cricket, as did all the papers.
And yet, it turns out that more people watched the tennis!
According to the BBC, the peak audience for the tennis, at around 7.00pm, was 9.6m.
Without doubt, that’s an incredible viewership for what turned out to be the most extraordinary final – and possibly one-day match – in cricket’s history. [Sidenote: I was lucky enough to see the extraordinary Australia v South Africa semi-final at the 1999 World Cup in Edgbaston. Even that last over had nothing on this match.]
But more people watched the tennis.
Partly that’s because it was on BBC One. But that’s an easy answer and more likely, its because tennis is more popular due to regularly available on free-to-air TV. OK – mostly that’s during a brief period between the French Open, which gets extensive coverage on ITV4, and Wimbledon, with a couple of grass court tournaments on the BBC as well as Wimbledon.
Meanwhile, while the ICC pats themselves on the back for getting the coverage on free-to-air TV of the final, that was the only game in the World Cup that appeared on free TV. And had England not made it to the final, then it would have stayed behind the Sky paywall.
Will there be hundreds of kids joining cricket clubs as a result of this? I hope so. But one match is surely not enough.
There’s a new “100 ball” competition that starts next year and will be shown by the BBC. A new format, not because cricket needs a new format (most would agree that it already has too many), but because nobody at the ECB wants to give up a penny of their Sky cash by moving one of those competitions, even a little bit, to free-to-air. Even the 100 ball format will only in part be on the BBC. So they came up with a whole new format that they could sell to both the BBC and Sky.
So we end up with the usual counties still competing in the T20 Blast series – shown on Sky. And then a city-based format played over 100 balls (16 and two thirds overs), at a slightly different time of year.
There’s an Ashes tour still to come this summer. None of that is getting shown on free to air TV – at least outside of highlights packages. The Cricket World Cup highlights incidentally, were shown dismally late for the most part.
Let’s be clear that in part the reason that the ECB “persuaded” the rights owner Sky, to do the deal with Channel 4, was because they were embarrassed that the Women’s World Cup was outperforming them by a vast amount. To put that in perspective, 11.7m watched England lose against the USA in the semi-final a couple of weeks ago.
The ECB has already sold the majority of cricket rights to Sky through until 2024. The BBC will also be showing a grand total of TWO men’s England T20 games and a single women’s T20 game. Highlights of other competitions will return to the BBC.
According to Sport England’s Active Lives participation in cricket has fallen from 2.9% to 2.6% over the last four periods they’ve measured. That’s not a healthy sport, however well the current players are doing.
Next weekend is the British Open, another sport that has largely left free-to-air television. Peculiarly, only the US Masters gets live coverage, with the BBC showing the final two days. The Royal & Ancient sold the live rights for The Open to Sky back in 2015, and as a consequence golf has basically disappeared from free-to-air screens. Those without a Sky Sports subscription will have to make do with the radio or highlights on BBC TV.
I appreciate that for a sport’s governing body, it’s all a fine line. On the one hand, they want to keep their sport alive. That means adding new players at the bottom of the pyramid: i.e. kids. They need to be playing the sport at school or in local clubs. In turn, they will provide both the next generation of players, and a backbone of people interested enough in the sport to be spectators.
Pay-TV companies like Sky need to provide something that keeps their subscribers happy. They want coverage that makes them an essential purchase. They can outbid free-to-air rivals. They can dedicate whole channels to a sport; gone are the days of Test cricket coverage disappearing because there was live racing to show.
But what’s interesting is the position of sponsors. They’re also vitally important for sports bodies. Sponsors want to “activate” their sponsorship and that means getting as broad coverage as possible. As events fall away to become pay-TV exclusive, the visibility of their sponsorship declines. That in turn means that it’s less valuable.
Who the pay-TV audience actually is, is also extremely important. The trend away from younger viewers even feeling the need to subscribe to something like Sky is a wider issue for TV. But it particularly impacts on sport. It’s not as though a particular sport has any right to be a national pastime.
I always think that Rugby Union is a sport that has got it just about right. Despite the temptation, they’ve kept the Six Nations free-to-air – now with both the BBC and ITV covering the competition. That keeps wider interest in the sport. The World Cup is also free-to-air – but since that’s only every four years, they need annual coverage to make sure we don’t “forget” the sport. There’s a sprinkling of other coverage, including some club rugby on free-to-air TV as well. Meanwhile, the Autumn internationals and most club and European rugby is on pay-TV.
Whether the quantity of rugby union is sustainable is another question, but if the RFU and it’s equivalents were to move the Six Nations away from free-to-air TV (and there are always rumours that they want), I’d say that it’d be the beginning of the end of rugby’s relatively exalted position. Like cricket, it could quickly become something that only those who’ve been privately educated value and whose schools primarily play the games.
The value of that coverage being in the public eye can’t be underestimated.
I’m not sure that relying on a sport being a Listed Event is an end to things either. A reminder that like a number of European countries, the UK has a set list of sporting events that must be made available free-to-air as they are of national interest.
The list is divided into two – those which must be broadcast live, and those that free-to-air highlights must be made available for.
Group A – Live
- The Olympic Games
- The FIFA World Cup Finals Tournament
- The FA Cup Final
- The Scottish FA Cup Final (in Scotland)
- The Grand National
- The Derby
- The Wimbledon Tennis Finals
- The European Football Championship Finals Tournament
- The Rugby League Challenge Cup Final
- The Rugby World Cup Final
Group B – Highlights
- Cricket Test Matches played in England
- Non-Finals play in the Wimbledon Tournament
- All Other Matches in the Rugby World Cup Finals Tournament
- Six Nations Rugby Tournament Matches involving Home Countries
- The Commonwealth Games
- The World Athletics Championships
- The Cricket World Cup – the Final, Semi-finals and Matches involving Home Nations’ Teams
- The Ryder Cup
- The Open Golf Championship
You will note that in some instances we do get everything live on free-to-air TV regardless of the rules, but other sports have taken advantage of their place on the list to sell themselves live to Sky (or BT).
Also of note is that Ofcom very recently published a statement about which channels satisfied them as being widely enough available as being free-to-air.
They concluded that each of these channels is broadly distributed enough to count, reaching 95% of the population:
- BBC One
- BBC Two
- BBC Four
- BBC News
- BBC Parliament
- Channel 3 network (ITV, STV, UTV)
- Channel 4
- Film 4
- More 4
While CBeebies is likely to become home of the FA Cup Final anytime soon, it’s instructive to see who isn’t on the list. Channel 5 isn’t in large part because they don’t offer live streaming to a great enough extent. You still can’t stream Channel 5 live on its website amazingly enough!
YouTube isn’t there. In part that’s due to availability, but also because of the way Ofcom assessed things. Interestingly both the IOC and UEFA responded criticising Ofcom for the way it diminished “second screen” viewing in its model. The Champions League and Europa League finals, you will recall, are made available free-to-air by BT largely via YouTube. Neither are on the Ofcom Listed Events.
And while it wasn’t essential, it’s notable that Pick TV, Sky’s little loved Freeview channel, and home to endless emergency services documentaries, is not on the list. It’s multiplex isn’t widely distributed enough. In any case, it was always a smarter move to get coverage on Channel 4 for the World Cup, because they already had highlights rights, and the value of giving millions of viewers hours of Sky Sports branded coverage is substantial. (As I’ve previously suggested, I’m amazed that BT doesn’t do this with its Champions’ League finals coverage. Get someone like Channel 4 or Channel 5 to show it live, with its graphics and presentation team.
I also find that it’s always instructive to look around to see what sports do in other countries. In Australia, cricket is shared between the pay Fox Sports channel and free-to-air Seven. Both channels show Test matches, while Fox gets one day and T20 internationals. The Big Bash League, Australia’s very successful T20 competition is mostly shared across both networks, with 43 matches on both channels. Fox gets a further 16 exclusively. Women’s cricket is also shared by both parties.
In India Star Sports has IPL cricket rights. But the monthly fee is around 19 INR + tax – or around 26p a month. In other words, it’s pretty affordable.
In the US, the vast majority of NFL games are on free-to-air network TV, with only ESPN having regular weekly pay TV games (NFL Network also has a very small handful). MLB is shown across free-to-air network TV and basic cable channels. ESPN is widely available on cable plans, because the US model is mostly that everyone pays for everything. You don’t get to choose if you buy the sports pack, you just get it, and it’s hidden within your monthly cable bill.
Of course with “unbundling” fewer homes are taking ESPN and its finding its model challenged.
Sunday’s tennis and cricket were both terrific, and a large part of the TV viewing population watched one or perhaps both of them.
But a single match in fourteen years isn’t enough. And creating a new format just to keep the Sky cash rolling it won’t in and of itself mean that the future of a sport is secured for another generation.
It becomes easy to get reliant on pay TV, but if participation falls, then the pay TV audience in due course will diminish and your sport won’t be as relevant even to them.
Cricket gets the headlines today, but in just 24 days time, the Premier League starts up again. Just over three weeks! The Ashes will have barely started, and the narrative will have moved on.
Things are stuck until 2024. But the ECB and the ICC should take long hard looks at themselves if they want a cricketing future to build on in England.