England & Wales Cricket Board January 23, 2009

Free-to-air debate resurfaces

Cricinfo staff

The debate about cricket's place on the list of Britain's "crown jewel" sports is set to be revisited after a pledge from the country's leading governing bodies to keep their main events on free-to-air TV.

A voluntary code of conduct has been put in place following a government-commissioned review, with the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, understood to favour the reintroduction of cricket to the List-A events, perhaps in the form of the schedule-friendly Twenty20 version.

Such a move, however, would have massive implications for the funding of the sport. In 2004, the ECB were accused of breaking a "gentleman's agreement" when it sold its exclusive live coverage to Sky, and those protests became more vociferous when England subsequently won the Ashes to huge national acclaim in the last year of free-to-air cricket in 2005.

That decision was described at the time as "breathtakingly shortsighted" in a report commissioned by Lord Marland, who last week reignited the debate when we was unveiled as Giles Clarke's rival for the chairmanship of the ECB.

Last summer, however, Clarke brokered a further deal with Sky worth £300 million over four years, and claimed at the announcement, while launching a scathing attack on the BBC, that no bids had been received from domestic broadcasters despite an attempt to divide the rights into multiple packages.

The BBC responded indignantly that it had not been given a meaningful chance to bid, while Setanta also questioned the openness of the bidding process. In its defence, the ECB can point to new statistics released on Thursday, which show that domestic cricket attendances have risen, with participation in the game up by 27% in 2007, despite the absence of free-to-air access.

An independent review panel, chaired by the FA executive director David Davies and including the new Middlesex director of cricket, Angus Fraser, has been established to look into the government's listed events. The eight signatories to the code include the governing bodies of athletics, cricket, football, golf, rugby league and tennis.

"Sports events bind us together as a nation and it's vital, where possible, the public can watch them," said Charles Flint, a senior barrister who will chair a 13-strong panel of experts. "It's also crucial for the development of sport that broadcasting deals represent good value for money for governing sports. The voluntary code strikes the right balance between audience and revenue."