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.

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.

How Not To Reinvigorate T20

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.

The Open Goes to Sky

As has been widely anticipated in the press, today saw news that Sky Sports has won a five-year contract beginning in 2017 to broadcast The Open golf tournament exclusively live. The BBC will have a two hour 8pm-10pm highlights package.

Sky is said to be paying twice as much as the BBC, and they will no doubt throw loads of resources at the coverage. Of course viewers will get advertising as well, but those who find Peter Alliss a little “long in the tooth” will be happy.

The downside is that one of the only remaining golf tournaments on free-to-air television is gone. All that is left is the final two days of The Masters (Sky having all four days after an F1-style sharing agreement was reached a couple of years ago).

From my perspective, I’m not too bothered about golf per se. I don’t play it. I’ll watch it if it’s on, but when The Open is played, I tend to prefer to be outside myself enjoying the summer rather than holed up in my living room with the curtains drawn to avoid sun causing glare on my TV.

But while this deal offers a nice cash injection to the R&A, it’s really short-term thinking to remove a sport from national coverage when it’s in decline.

With the greatest will in the world, two hours’ highlights on BBC2 when anyone who cares already knows the result, is of little relevance.

Since I last wrote about this subject, when rumours mounted that live coverage of The Open would be leaving free-to-air TV, Sport England has released the full results of the most recent sweep of its Active Sport survey with the full year results up to and including October 2014.

So I’ve updated the chart I published previously, which shows at least once a month participation in sport:

Specifically it shows that the percentage of the population who play golf has fallen from a high of 3.73% (2007/2008 – towards the end of Tiger Wood’s unparalleled reign over the sport), to just 2.57% in the latest sweep. To be clear, Sport England reports that this is a statistically significant decrease. Indeed that represents almost a third fall in people playing the game.

Hiding your sport behind closed doors wouldn’t seem to be the most sensible thing to do.

Notably at the weekend, Lee Westwood was reporting the impending deal as being “an absolute disgace.”

“I wouldn’t have got into golf if it wasn’t for watching Nick Faldo win the Open in 1987. I would watch every minute of the coverage, and you want today’s kids to have the same opportunity. The BBC is doing golf no favours at all by letting the Open go.”

I’ll remind you again that Lewis Hamilton beat the more deserving (IMHO) Rory McIlroy, almost certainly because the average man or woman in the street has perhaps caught a bit of F1 on television. Frankly, you’ll be doing well to see much of McIlroy.

Recently I heard Kevin Pietersen on the radio talking about the success of Australia’s Big Bash Twenty20 cricket tournament. He was enthused about how well the league is doing, and how the franchise system works.

I’d suggest that the reasons for it’s success are less to do with the franchise system (which works well for players getting big paydays of course), and more to do with the tournament being broadcast on the free-to-air Network 10 channel is Australia.

I would humbly suggest that the ECB could re-jig the domestic Twenty20 tournament as much as it liked, but unless there’s some way to watch games live on free-to-air TV, the long-term decline in cricket participation will also only continue. It’s down nearly 20% since the Sport England survey began in 2005/6 – and yes there is a small uptick this year, but it’s not statistically significant. Sky, remember, won exclusive rights to Test cricket in 2006. And highlights – particularly for something like Twenty20, are fairly worthless in the scheme of things.

Rugby Union is the next sport that should be taking some notice. The spread of availability of rugby seems a reasonable combination of free-to-air and pay TV. The Six Nations is free on the BBC, and the World Cup is free on ITV. ITV/ITV4 has highlights of the Aviva Premiership, while BT Sport has live coverage. BT Sport and Sky share rights to the inaugural European Rugby Champions’ Cup, and Sky shows England’s autumn internationals, with the BBC having other home nations coverage and highlights of the England games. Finally there is also BBC Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland coverage of the Pro12 (formerly Celtic league), often on the red button.

But rugby too has to be careful. The most recent Sport England Active People survey results show 0.59% of the population playing rugby at least once a month. That’s down from a high of 0.76%.

So it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the Six Nations contract next time around. Sky or BT may offer more money, but as a regulator, is it in your interests, to maximise your revenues today, or think about the future of your sport tomorrow? It feels more of today’s regulators are only considering the former.

And one further thought. Should sports who choose to remove free-to-air coverage of their events still be in receipt of grants from bodies like Sport England? According to their most recent accounts, they award close to £300m of lottery and exchequer money to support the take-up of sport by more people (which in turn improves the health of the population and lowers costs to the NHS).

Is your sport deserving of these funds if they’re making it harder for young people to watch top flight action?

Is Golf Becoming as Invisible as Cricket?

According to a report in the Telegraph, the Royal & Ancient is considering whether or not they extend their 50 year broadcasting agreement with the BBC for future coverage of golf, or whether some or all rights go to Sky.

In reality, I suspect that this is a negotiating tactic to try to squeeze a bit more cash out of the BBC in the next rights round. But across the Atlantic, these rights go for eye-watering sums, and I dare-say there are some envious looks.

Let’s see. Most televised golf is already salted away on Sky Sports. Is the R&A suggesting that somehow, by losing free-to-air coverage of The Open, uptake of golf will improve?

Here are the figures from Sport England’s Active People survey:

I would suggest that golf isn’t exactly in the rosiest of health.

Look at the Ryder Cup. Yes there are free-to-air highlights, but it’s fair to say that live coverage is probably one of the jewels in Sky Sports crown. They throw everything at it. Rory McIlroy was one of the stars of Europe’s winning team in 2014.

And yet, when it comes to the public voting for Sports Personality of the Year, the much more deserving McIlroy gets outvoted by F1’s Lewis Hamilton. McIlroy may have won over one weekend live on BBC TV, but Hamilton was seen free-to-air over many weekends – many of them live. I’m not saying that’s the only reason Hamilton won (F1 fans ae probably more engaged in picking up their phones to vote than golf fans), but I suspect that most people’s affinity for McIlroy comes from his in-no-way-awkward Santander adverts, whereas they might have actually seen Hamilton driving a car.

This discussion comes in the week that the ECB renewed its current exclusive cricket deal with Sky for another two years. This is great news for Sky, but terrible news for cricket. The sport is becoming incidental. Tennis, Cycling, Swimming, Athletics, Snooker, NFL, and Darts even, get more exposure on free-to-air TV than cricket.

An hour of highlights on Channel 5 isn’t going to get any 12 year old off the sofa to knock a ball about with his or her friends in the park. Indeed with the slug-fest that is IPL disappearing from ITV4 off to Sky Sports from this season, I don’t think that there’ll be any live cricket coverage of any sort on any free-to-air TV channel anywhere.

Yes that chart above shows a slight blip in cricket uptake, but it’s still lower than it was just after Channel 4 lost cricket rights to Sky.

I’m always amazed at how short-termist some sports bodies are with regards to this sort of thing. Yes, there’s a big cheque on the table today. But how easy do you think it will be tomorrow when a new generation of fans hasn’t been brought up with the game? And you might find sponsors aren’t writing quite as big cheques either.

Selling Your Sport Short

There’s an interesting piece in yesterday’s Guardian hypothesising that by selling itself nearly completely to pay-TV players, rugby union could be very short sighted and diminish the appeal of the sport.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think the English Cricket Board has done precisely that, and we’re ending up with a sport of diminishing appeal (in spite of a few big crowds at Twenty20 fixtures). And that’s before their recent ineptness over the whole Kevin Pietersen business including the leak of some kind of internal document that they were compiling.

I’ve always held up rugby to be slightly different to that. But an hour of highlights on ITV4 on a Sunday night isn’t enough for club rugby. The BBC has the Six Nations, and ITV has the World Cup – solidly sold out next year it seems (£70 to sit in the gods at Twickenham to see England? I’ll watch on telly thanks). But most of those could go behind the pay-TV wall if organisers accepted the Sky/BT shilling. Six Nations events need only have highlights broadcast free-to-air, and only the Rugby World Cup Final is guaranteed a live free-to-air showing. The rest of the competition could go to Sky/BT.

The new European Champions’ Cup is shared between BT Sport and Sky Sports, after a protracted wrangle between the big pay-TV operators over the future of what was previously the Heineken Cup. Only the Welsh, it seems, get any kind of free-to-air highlights of the new competition (head to S4C if you have Sky, Virgin Media or Freesat).

My nephew has just started secondary school and is the rugby squad. He’s going to be limited to lots of highlights until early next year – the Aviva Premier League and the Autumn Internationals (England anyway). I wonder if that’s enough to encourage him to want to stay with the sport?

You might argue that the same could be said of football. We’ve never had top division live football free-to-air, with the exception of a brief period when ITV broadcast live fixtures – Liverpool 0 – Arsenal 2 anyone? But football is much bigger.

It would be an interesting experiment if during the next round of Premier League rights somebody came in and say broadcast a few games on a willing free-to-air station – Channel 5 say. They might do a revenue share deal surrounding advertising. We still have to see how BT Sport presents its free-to-air Champions’ League coverage next season. Champions’ League football is not a listed sport. It’s only the needs of the advertisers really, and possibly visibility of the tournament adding to its value to BT, that means we’ll get any free-to-air coverage at all.

I mention this because I can’t help comparing the UK with the US, where it’s free-to-air networks that pay the top money for NFL coverage. Three of the four networks broadcast games weekly. Similarly, packages of MLB and NBA games are sold to basic cable networks. And local stations might also offer coverage free-to-air. Live sport is ratings gold, with unskippable advertising opportunities.

Ashes Highlights This Winter

Returning to a familiar topic, I note that there are no Ashes highlights on Channel 5 this winter. Instead they’ll be broadcast on Pick TV – Sky’s free-to-air channel available on most platforms including Freeview. They’ll be broadcast nightly at 10pm, just before play begins the following day. Live coveragewill of course be on Sky Sports.

I shall just note that they’re not being broadcast on Channel 5 – I can only assume because either they cost too much for Richard Desmond to stump up, or they were not offered to Channel 5 at all. Instead Sky will put them out on the channel that’s the home of Motorway Patrol and Border Security (OK – they do show the odd decent show too).

It’s worth noting that highlights of England Test matches overseas are not a Listed Event and so Sky is well within its rights to do this.

But in case you’re thinking, “Well it’s on Pick TV which is free to air, so everyone can watch anyway,” then think again.

The Freeview multiplex that Pick TV is broadcast on is available to a little under 90% of Freeview homes. Just over 10% of Freeview homes are unable to receive Pick TV. Not terrible, but not up to the coverage of public service broadcasters which are around 98.5%.

If you don’t offer access to a broad audience for your sport, then do not expect too much from the next generation. Cricket, as I’ve said many times before, is treading down this path, with no free-to-air cricket available in the UK.

Note: I write this as someone who watches cricket, and subscribes to Sky Sports. And I’ve updated the numbers to properly reflect Pick TV’s Freeview coverage.