Don't mention the pay war
Steven Smith stares gravely from the cover of Nine's Ashes launch programme, clad in the baggy green and with bat in hand. These programmes are all over the Centennial Hotel, where Nine's commercial, marketing and broadcast teams have combined to launch their coverage of the series in which Smith should be leading Australia.
Yet there's something different about this event, complete with all its expected television pizzazz, breathless salesmanship and the added pep and pepper of the Nine commentary team. Given the bitter ongoing pay dispute, there are no players present, nor is there anyone from Cricket Australia, from whom Nine bought the rights for near enough A$100 million a season in 2013, as part of a contract that ends next year.
In days gone by, Nine used to sign up numerous members of the Test team to their own deals. Mark Taylor, Shane Warne, Steve Waugh, Ian Healy were all on the network's books at the time of the previous major pay dispute in 1997-98, and it is still felt these deals helped ward off strike action by the players then. This time, however, only David Warner among the current team has any sort of deal with Nine, and even he is absent from the event.
Nine's Ashes coverage, and its pitch to prospective advertisers to be a part of it, offers a tangible example of how the pay dispute can destabilise the game, and how in many ways it already has. As things currently stand, Nine must rely on images and footage from last season and before to sell the Ashes, because the chance of anything new being shot has been scuppered by the expiry of the MoU and the passing of all intellectual property rights from CA to the Australian Cricketers Association's new commercial wing - the Cricketers' Brand.
So it is that Nine's pitch to the array of corporate types in the room starts with a montage of athletes from other sports saying how much they love watching the Ashes: Harry Kewell (football), Matthew Lloyd (AFL), Liz Ellis (netball), Libby Trickett (swimming) and Darren Lockyer (rugby league) are among the luminaries. Nine, it should be said, have taken this lateral approach in previous years, but had they wanted to approach CA to interview Australia's players this week for a similar montage, they would not have been able to.
Next up is Sam Brennan, Nine's director of sales for sport. With a zeal somewhere between Mad Men and Michael Keaton in The Founder, he outlines why summer is a great time to advertise: "Summer has a positive impact on the way we consume and the way we behave. In summer we're doing more, we're spending more time outdoors, we're eating more, we're drinking more. Most importantly for this room, we're spending more. On average we expect Australians over summer to spend about $1200 more per head than in any other period of the year. That's what's exciting for us and that's what all of us in this room are fighting for."
With that, he goes into the hard sell. "Irrespective of what industry or category you work in, I think the real challenge for us is to find a meaningful way to connect consistently with our customers over summer," he says.
"Thanks to one of the largest ever marketing campaigns over summer through Cricket Australia, we will see for the first time in four years stadiums all around Australia sold out. Add to that the inaugural women's Ashes kicking off on the 22nd of October this year, there is no doubt this will be the biggest summer of international cricket we have ever seen on Nine in four decades of broadcasting."
As director of sport, Tom Malone oversees the coverage around which all this prospective advertising may be wrapped. A little over a year and one cricket season into the job, he talks in Olympian terms. "It only comes to Australia every four years. That's why it's so special. Everyone involved times their run around the Ashes. Players, administrators, broadcasters, fans, everyone. It's the Olympics of cricket, but there's only one sport, only one arena, and only one event going on in that arena. All eyes are trained on that event. At the ground, at home, in pubs, at the beach, you can't miss a moment, because it only comes around every four years."
Another montage knits together Ashes footage with images of Australia's emerging team last summer, espousing the virtues of Warner, Smith, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan "cult hero" Lyon, and the young bloods Matt Renshaw, Pete Handscomb and Pat Cummins. As leader of the women's team, Meg Lanning gets a brief mention. Nine, it is clear, wants to sell the exploits and personalities of these players to the advertisers who will then sell their products in between overs. It is all set out as a sure thing - what's more reliable than an Ashes summer?
In Brennan's words: "We will deliver the most comprehensive cricket broadcast from October to February this year. There's no other media organisation in Australia that can lay claim to that - we will beat everybody by the length of the Randwick straight."
But of course there is nothing sure right now. More than 230 players are unemployed, CA have a mess of commercial deals pending, and an event like Nine's launch is meant to signal the start of a period in which issues like industrial relations have already been sorted out, opening the way for work on selling and promoting the game. Too Big To Fail, title of a book and film about the 2008 global financial crisis, would apply readily to the looming season.
Studiously and deliberately, Nine's commercial salesmen avoid any mention of the MoU or the dispute, but their commentators aren't quite as polite. On a panel compered by Michael Slater - who was drawn into a heated debate on breakfast radio earlier in the week over the question of players being in "partnership" with CA - Ian Healy, Michael Clarke and Ian Chappell put forth their views.
Healy terms it a dispute not over pay but its modelling: "The players are really pissed off they haven't been shown enough respect, haven't been given sufficient detail to make good decisions on the five years moving forwards. They want a little bit more respect with what they've been provided. That hasn't happened. Then they've been presented with this offer that is A$100 million more than the last five years, but they've had no negotiations. It's just 'there it is', so they're a bit suspicious."
Chappell, ever the Atlanta Braves loyalist, draws on his memory of Major League Baseball's fractious 1994-95 lockout. "It's ridiculous that it's got to this stage," he says. "It's got to be a partnership, and I think that it has been a partnership in the past with the MoUs, but this time I get the distinct impression they're trying to split the players' association. I don't understand that, having come from an era when the players were on their own.
"I think there's a very good example [in baseball]. The players' association and the owners didn't like each other at all, and we had these four or five work stoppages. In 1994 they cancelled the World Series [due to a lockout] and I think that was the catalyst for both sides to look at each other and say, 'This is stupid, this has got to be a partnership.'" From that moment on, I won't say they like each other, but there hasn't been a work stoppage since."
Clarke, meanwhile, takes the high road, urging the two warring parties to call a truce to allow the players to get back to preparing for summer, and then do their dealings away from the public eye. "This is a huge summer for Australia. We've all just seen the videos of the guys speaking about how important the Ashes series is for everybody in this room - x1000 for a player. It is the most important series of your career, and I know how important preparation is. So I would like the players to concentrate on that, and that gives CA and the ACA time to sort this out."
Tellingly, this missive draws the day's only spontaneous applause, from a room of now rather more nervous advertising executives.
The biggest laugh is drawn by Bill Lawry, about to commentate on his 40th consecutive season of international cricket for Nine. Cut off after a lively monologue about lifetime union and ACA membership by Slater, plus the enscarved Shane Watson's resemblance to Harrison Ford, Lawry protests: "What happens if there's no cricket? I'm getting in now early and getting my money's worth!"
Two strong views circulated in the room after official proceedings concluded. The first was that in a commercial game where perception is all important, the dispute itself is an awfully bad look for all. The second was that dollars and cents decree that some positive movement between CA and the ACA will need to be evident by the time Nine stages a second Ashes launch event in Melbourne on Wednesday.
For just as the advertisers wanted to leave the Centennial Hotel with something more than Smith's picture, CA's Melbourne-based management would prefer to turn up to the lunch table with gladder and more certain tidings than those offered over the past few months.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig