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January 31, 2012
There will be no live cricket on free-to-view television until at least 2017 following the ECB's announcement today that it has renewed its exclusive deal with Sky TV.
Emphasis has remained determinedly focused on securing maximum revenue to protect the financially stricken first-class game, in defiance of the protests of a vociferous free-to-air lobby. The ECB will claim that this has been achieved after securing a deal that is thought to be comparable to the previous agreement, which industry sources estimated at £280m over four years.
Sky Sports, the only serious bidder, has won the rights to show live domestic and international cricket in England and Wales from 2014-17 as part of a package that includes all England's home Tests, ODIs and T20I series, selected England Lions and England women fixtures, plus 60 days of domestic cricket every season.
The deal also includes an option to extend for a further two years, which would encompass tours by India in 2018 and Australia in 2019 and would, presumably, neatly sidestep any potential government legislation that might be introduced to give the Ashes series "crown jewels" status and so demand it was available free of charge.
Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, who led the talks alongside the commercial director John Perera, made no apologies for the deal. "No-one should be in any doubt that our partnership with Sky has been of immense benefit to the wider game," he said. "World-class support structures for our successful England teams, major ground improvements at county level, a flourishing coach education programme and a 5% increase in participation at our 'Focus' clubs are all by-products of this relationship."
The ECB has also announced a new deal with Channel 5 for England highlights, with an early evening slot for transmission going some way to appeasing critics.
Thanks to the announcement last week of a new six-year deal with BBC Radio, the ECB is able to claim that "broadcasting agreements for the next contractual cycle will deliver an overall increase in revenues compared with the previous four-year period". It is a marginal claim at best.
The awarding of TV rights followed an open tender process in which all broadcasters were invited to bid for a variety of packages, which included the rights to individual Test matches, series or competitions, and a mixture of live and highlights programming.
In a major economic downturn, the ECB will be satisfied with maintaining the status quo. It is certainly aware of the art of timing. It negotiated the last deal just before the banking crash and it has rushed through this deal to try to capitalise on England's No. 1 Test ranking - just before the cricketing crash, some might say, after England's horrendous defeats in the first two Tests against Pakistan.
Millions of cricket lovers, unwilling or unable to contemplate pay TV, will not be appeased, whatever the benefits. The images of England's 2005 Ashes win and the open-top bus ride through London still resonate and many put that down to the fact that the Test series was available for all to watch.
In 2009 a review led by David Davies, a former executive director of the Football Association, recommended that England's home Ashes Tests should return to the "crown jewels" list of protected free-to-air events. The ECB dubbed the conclusions "deeply flawed" and warned of mass cutbacks if the proposals were accepted.
The previous Labour government suggested it was of a mind to accept Davies' recommendations but the 2010 general election brought a change of government and an announcement by the incoming sports minister, Hugh Robertson, that any decision would be delayed until 2013 - time enough for Ashes series up to and including 2019 to be secured by pay TV.
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