June 20, 2013

When team selection meets broadcast economics

Nine's multi-million dollar broadcast deal was unlikely to have been agreed to unless there were some "understandings" about concerns over TV audience numbers

The drop in cricket ratings on Channel Nine was one of the focal points of the last Australian summer © Getty Images

This story was but a few hours old when I penned my instinctive reaction to the news that Channel Nine will apparently have some role to play in influencing the selection of Australia's cricket team under the new broadcast deal agreed to last week.

On the surface, it appears almost incredible that a senior executive of a TV network would be bold enough to make that claim in public but once the initial shock has passed, I think we'll have to grudgingly applaud him for his honesty.

Predictably, Cricket Australia was quick to reject the suggestion that selections would be made by anyone but the selectors, but Channel Nine have probably achieved everything they wanted to achieve in a strategic sense just by putting the story out there and giving it some oxygen. In a big-picture sense, I doubt that Channel Nine would seriously have expected anyone to believe that they would have a serious role to play in individual selections; I suspect they merely wanted to make the point that the overall team selections need to be more closely aligned to playing the best available XI, mindful of injuries but with less emphasis on the rotation policy aimed at preventing fatigue/injuries.

The matter came to a head last summer when a combination of actual injuries, pre-emptive injury-management tactics (which by and large proved to be an utterly useless predictive tool when it came to preventing injuries) and "resting" supposedly fatigued players (who were keen enough to keep playing in the IPL soon after) saw cricket ratings on Nine come sharply into focus.

It didn't help that both Sri Lanka and West Indies were not touted as major draw cards after the much-anticipated South Africa series was concluded. Sri Lanka were abjectly poor in the Tests but proved worthy opponents in the limited-overs format. It probably spoke even more about the quality of the Australian teams that took the field that a Sri Lanka team missing Kumar Sangakkara would consider themselves unlucky to not win that series.

Two of the ODIs finished halfway through the day, and there was strong discontent expressed about an Australian team that rarely looked like a genuine 1st XI. That sort of viewer discontent would not have gone unnoticed by Nine, who have proved over the years, regardless of which sport they cover, that corporate greed is the only business model they subscribe to. So it is not surprising that they would express a strong preference for Australian teams at near full-strength in the future.

The next summer may not be the best time to judge the public's appetite for cricket because England always tends to attract strong TV audiences, especially now that they are a genuine force in world cricket again. The Tests are likely to be played by the best 22 players available on the day, and regardless of whether Australia is getting flogged or not, I suspect the TV ratings will still be acceptable to the host broadcaster.

The real problems will emerge if injuries and the ridiculously indulgent rotation policy affect the ODI series at the end of the summer, when people are still on holiday and have other major events like the Australian Open tennis and various golf championships to switch their attentions to. At that point, Nine may be tempted to have a quiet word with Jolimont Street to hint that a batting group of the calibre of Wade, Warner, Hughes, Hussey, Bailey, Smith, Maxwell and Henriques may not necessarily be in the spirit of the A$400-plus million dollar broadcast deal.

No coincidence that the slump in fortunes, on the field and in the TV ratings, appears to have a direct correlation to a rotation system that the general public simply does not understand nor condone

With all due respect, if Nuwan Kulasekara can go through this Australian batting order to the tune of 74 all out, it hardly inspires much confidence for times when Anderson, Broad and Finn find themselves on a pitch with a bit of sideways movement and swing in the air. None of the batsmen mentioned above, Bailey notwithstanding, have done much since that day at the Gabba in January to suggest that they have improved to the point where they are now marketable TV-ratings winners. Warner might well become a TV hit if he followed the lead of some of Australia's rugby stars and moonlighted as a boxer, but as a batsman his recent performances suggest that he is not the draw card that he promised to be on his stunning debut against Dale Steyn in a Twenty20 match a few seasons ago.

Recent performances in the Champions Trophy will have both the TV broadcaster and the World Cup organising committee genuinely concerned. The Australian ODI team needs to rediscover its winning form. Another summer of poor performances and/or low-key matches will not be good for business, especially when the local football codes seem to be starting earlier each year. Australian audiences don't seem to mind if their team is winning handsomely - the Romans too were happy enough to fill the Colosseum to watch a relatively one-sided contest between Christians and lions. The halcyon years of the late 1990s through to as recently as a year or two ago were happy days for those counting the dollars as they flowed in.

No coincidence that the slump in fortunes, on the field and in the TV ratings, appears to have a direct correlation to a rotation system that the general public simply do not understand nor condone. They can call it what they like - "informed player management" or any other meaningless MBA jargon - but it still amounts to the same thing: Australian caps being handed out to cricketers who are barely among the best 22 in the country.

Cricket Australia has downplayed the significance of Nine's bold statement but the fact remains that the multi-million dollar broadcast deal was unlikely to have been agreed to unless there were some "understandings" about the concerns for the health of the TV audience numbers. This matters even more now since it's increasingly clear that Michael Clarke will play less and less cricket. As the only genuine world-class player, despite his relative lack of popularity with the beer-swilling yobbo element of the cricket fan base, his frequent absences from both the Test and ODI scene will detract from the quality of the product.

Whether that translates into actually influencing the selection of teams is debatable. The public outrage over that may even eclipse their distaste for the rotation policy, but I think it would be naïve to assume that Nine would have forked out this sort of cash for a team in temporary decline unless there were some tacit assurances that the 1st XI would at least resemble the 2nd XI. On present form, the composition of either is a genuine toss-up. Perhaps the best ratings winner will be a return to the Australia v Australia A concept. That at least will assure the audience of a home victory!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane