News by Neil Robinson 19/12/04
The worst thing about professional sport is the one thing which defines it, money. It breeds a culture of arrogant, self-obsessed football stars, mercenary agents, bloodsucking city shareholders, overweening TV executives and paranoid administrators desperate to secure every penny they possibly can to pay for their kingdoms.
What clearer example could we have of this than the England & Wales Cricket Board’s decision this week to sell exclusive TV rights to all international cricket in England to satellite broadcaster BSkyB? It was a move long touted, but rarely taken seriously. A few hours before the announcement was made an item on BBC Radio 4 barely mentioned it as an option, concentrating instead on the likely retention of the status quo. The consensus among pundits seemed to be that it was one of those wild ideas which emanate from headquarters from time to time but which they’re never quite bold, or stupid, enough to pursue.
Not this time. Six years after first experimenting with satellite coverage of home Tests, the ECB has finally gone all the way, and next summer’s final Ashes Test at The Oval will be the last live international cricket to hit UK screens until at least 2010. Under the current arrangements, which began in 1999, Sky already had the rights to screen live coverage of at least one home Test per year, usually the least commercially attractive. The remaining Tests were the preserve of terrestrial broadcaster Channel 4, who also shared with Sky coverage of the knock-out C&G Trophy tournament and highlights to some other Sky matches. But Sky also held exclusive rights to all home One-Day Internationals, the Twenty20 Cup and the One Day League. It has broadcast live coverage of every England overseas tour since 1990.
Sky’s domination of English cricket is now complete, the only concession to terrestrial viewers being a promise of 45 minute highlights packages on Channel 5, the UK’s newest terrestrial broadcaster whose sporting portfolio is at present largely limited to running European and South American soccer matches in the early hours of the morning. Their broadcasts can currently be received by only 80% of UK households. No doubt Five will be delighted with this boost to their prestige, but they will have to try hard to make their coverage work. Lucky viewers of this channel are bombarded with adverts, roughly 4 minutes worth for every 15 minutes of airtime, which would bring that 45 minute slot down to 33 minutes of actual cricket. It is unlikely to be any more generous than this, since the desire to attract a more upmarket class of advertiser (instead of the current ‘no-win-no-fee’ lawyers and consolidation loan companies), must be a key factor in their motivation.
For the ousted Channel 4, it is a sorry end to a partnership with the ECB which began so promisingly. Taking over from the BBC in 1999, the commercial broadcaster was widely commended for smartening up the game’s presentation with improved graphics and camera work, while the commentary was also closer to the chatty, light-hearted style made popular by BBC Radio’s Test Match Special. Sadly, the critical acclaim was never matched by popular viewing. Although a brilliant high water-mark was reached when 5 million tuned in to watch the thrilling climax to the 2000 Lord’s Test against West Indies, audience figures rarely rose higher than the 1.8 million who tuned in on average during the last couple of years of BBC coverage.
Signs of Channel 4’s dwindling commitment to the game crept in surprisingly quickly. The flagship Saturday morning magazine programme ‘The Cricket Show’ was soon slashed from 60 to 30 minutes, initial promises that cricket would only give way to horse racing on Saturday afternoons did not last long either. The departure of David Brook, director of strategy and development and the man largely responsible for bringing cricket to the channel, in the autumn of 2002 was perhaps a crucial signal that things were about to change.
The channel had been unlucky enough to preside over terrestrial coverage at a time when English cricket was in the doldrums. The harder-headed businessmen on its board will have looked at the audience figures and the advertising revenue and drawn their own conclusions. But with England’s national team now on a decidedly upward curve, there is a chance that terrestrial coverage could bow out with a glorious reclamation of the Ashes at The Oval next year, in scenes of jubilation reminiscent of 1953. The boom in cricket that would spark could be huge, but Channel 4 and the BBC will not be there to capitalise upon it.
Money and audience figures. The delicate balance has loomed large in this affair. Sky has been persistently reluctant to reveal the extent of its audience for its domestic cricket coverage. Given the low commercial value of those Tests it has broadcast so far they are unlikely to be impressive figures. In general, Sky will get figures of approximately 10% of a comparable fixture on terrestrial TV, boxing and rugby, being two sports from which examples may be drawn. Can that be good enough to secure the future profile of English cricket?
The ECB seem to think so. Chairman David Morgan said, “This is a good deal for cricket as it guarantees wide accessibility to watch or listen to the action and secures the future development of the game from the playground to the Test arena.” Watch or listen? If the ECB take radio seriously as a means of broadening interest in the game they want their heads examining. As for securing the future, most people working in cricket development would despair at this move and the effect it will have on the enthusiasm of schoolchildren for the sport.
“Other proposals included live coverage of some international cricket on terrestrial TV but, if accepted, they would have resulted in a significant financial shortfall for the game,” Morgan went on. English cricket suffers greater than most from the burden of supporting a large fully professional structure. And a burden it is, rather than a blessing. If English cricket is to prosper as a strong, independent entity, it must learn to survive on as close to its own resources as possible. Otherwise it faces the prospect of repeatedly being sold, for £220 million, to the highest bidder.