ecb

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.

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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.