TV rights November 13, 2009

Ashes back on 'crown jewels' list

The ECB has described as "hugely detrimental" the decision to return England's home Ashes Tests to a revised list of major sporting events that should be shown on free-to-air TV. The findings of the review panel, headed by David Davies, the former chairman of the FA, were unveiled on Friday, but there will still be a huge number of hurdles to cross to get the Ashes back on terrestrial television.

"Sporting events with a special national resonance should continue to be protected for the widest-possible audience," said a statement issued by the panel. "There is still a place for a listed events regime, but its long-term future in a changing media landscape is by no means certain."

Test matches in England were de-listed in 1998 which meant that pay-TV operators could bid for the rights. Initially BSkyB gained one home Test per season with Channel 4 showing the rest, which ensured international cricket was still available on a free-to-air platform, but since 2005 all England matches have been shown live on BSkyB with just highlights available on Five.

When England regained the Ashes, at The Oval, in August the viewing figures peaked at around two million compared to the seven million who tuned in when Channel 4 had the rights for the 2005 series.

"On that night in August when England won the Ashes, the BBC One national news was led by cricket, the ITV news was led by cricket, Sky News throughout the day was led by cricket," Davies told the BBC. "Throughout that summer for five Test matches, cricket figured prominently on the national news in this country every day.

"My only question is if that was not an event of national resonance, what was it? I was also uneasy about the fact that millions of children were unable to see it live. We are asking cricket that once every four years - and not until 2016, in six years' time - that 25 days of cricket are free-to-air in one summer."

The ECB's current deal with BSkyB and Five, which is worth a combined £300 million, runs until 2013 and includes the next home Ashes series. Under the recommendations the first series that could possibly be back on terrestrial TV would be the 2016 contest.

Newspaper reports are suggesting that the Government's move to shift the Ashes back to free-to-air is an attempt to gain revenge on Rupert Murdoch, the owner of BSkyB, after the Murdoch-owned Sun backed the Conservatives for the next general election.

An ECB insider told Cricinfo that the fears were genuine, and with the report coming out so close to an election, there was a fear that they were being used as "the piggy in the middle"

While the move from terrestrial to pay-TV has hit viewing figures, the money pumped into the game at grassroots level has helped develop the game.The ECB are already braced for a battle to ensure that this proposal never sees the light of day.

Privately, they are furious that the committee did not commission an independent report into the economic impact of the decision, after estimating that some £30 million per year could be slashed from their budget, which amounts to more than a third of their annual turnover. They will be lobbying the government on that very point during the 12-week consultation process that will follow the announcement.

"The last time the Ashes were on terrestrial TV it was a tremendous series in 2005, but it still went off air on terrestrial for a horse race," David Collier, the ECB chief executive, told Cricinfo. "You just can't do that and retain any credibility. Why does the report believe that the competitor broadcasters will bid competitive rates for the 2016 series, when they had the opportunity in the last two rounds of bidding [in 2004 and 2008], and they failed to put in a bid?"

"The objective evidence is overwhelming. The overwhelming evidence says this is a nonsense and that is what we'll be presenting to the secretary of state. It would be disastrous if this implementation went through, as it would cut cricket's income by 50%. We've been very clear from the outset that they must take account of economic evidence, and that has not changed one iota."

"Both Secretary of State Ben Bradshaw and Minister of Sport Gerry Sutcliffe are big supporters of our grassroots programmes and the recent success our investment in women's cricket has had on the international stage," read an official ECB statement. "In the coming weeks we will set out to them the hugely detrimental impact the panel's recommendations would have on our successful community projects.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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