England TV rights January 8, 2015

Sky deal reignites free-to-air debate

Sky has done a lot of good for English cricket but the extension of its contract until 2019 should not be an excuse for the ECB to give up on trying to attract new audiences

Sky Sports has extended its deal to cover English cricket until the end of the 2019 season © Getty Images

News that Sky Sports has extended its broadcast partnership with the ECB until the end of the 2019 season, just as the Big Bash League is drawing huge audiences at home and in the ground, is sure to revive the debate about the virtues of cricket on free-to-air television.

As part of the broadcast deal agreed in 2012, Sky always had the option to extend its exclusive deal to televise English cricket beyond the apparent expiry in 2017 and was always likely to do so. In many ways, English cricket will breathe a sigh of relief.

Sky has been the broadcast partner of the ECB since 2006. In that time, it has pumped unprecedented resources into the game - the current deal is worth around £65m a year - and enabled the ECB to invest in better facilities, better coaching and medical resources and provide a huge increase in funding to grassroots cricket. The company pays handsomely for its exclusivity. It is no coincidence that the ECB has also been able to invest heavily in women's cricket and disability cricket during the Sky era.

Sky has also taken coverage of the game to a new level. It is easily forgotten now but Channel 4's coverage of two Ashes series was interrupted, in all, by 33 hours' worth of horse racing. Channel 4 also persuaded the ECB to start Tests at 10.30am one summer in order not to disrupt the evening scheduling of The Simpsons and Hollyoaks.

Equally, the BBC coverage of "Botham's Ashes" of 1981 was interrupted by programmes such as Playschool, Chock-a-block and The Skill of Lip-Reading while, for several years, their Sunday League coverage consisted of a single camera.

ESPNcricinfo understands that it is highly likely that some domestic cricket will return to free-to-air TV this year in a bid to reach out to a new audience

The past is often remembered with a romantic filter and Sky, with its coverage of all England games home and away, guaranteed 60 days of county coverage each season, and willingness - a willingness we often take for granted in the UK but which is rare elsewhere - to ask the hard questions in interviews and commentary probably offers the best service cricket lovers have ever had.

Or at least those who can afford it. And there is the rub, because whatever the virtue of the Sky deal for the ECB's finances and whatever the virtue of their coverage, the fact is that vast sections of the country have no access to live cricket on television. And whatever the virtues of sending coaches into primary schools - and Sky's money has helped fund Chance to Shine - there is no way that 1000 hours of helping kids hit tennis balls off cones will ever replace one hour of inspiration provided by watching the likes of Ian Botham or Andrew Flintoff lead England to the Ashes.

So, after almost a decade without any free-to-air coverage, there is a growing fear that the balance between the need for revenue and the need for exposure has fallen out of kilter. An uncomfortably large number of households in a country recovering from recession cannot afford subscription TV and that means a generation of children will grow up without exposure to the game and never having the chance to fall in love with its many charms.

Look through the county squads: a disproportionate number of players developed either abroad or through the private school system. Cricket is simply not relevant to vast swathes of the country.

This fear, growing in intensity over the years, was supported by figures released towards the end of 2014. Not only did the average number of spectators per game fall after the ECB relaunched its T20 competition, but figures showed that the number of people playing the game at recreational level had fallen. Meanwhile, there were worryingly poor ticket sales for the Southampton Test and in the Lord's domestic final, in particular, and cricket's place in local and national newspapers dwindled ever further. One prominent national paper even made the position of cricket correspondent redundant.

And, all the while, the BBL appears to go from strength to strength. Although there is no evidence that the quality of cricket is any higher than the NatWest Blast - quite the contrary, really - the fact is the competition, broadcast on free-to-air TV, has captured the imagination of a huge audience. Families flock to the grounds; viewing figures are impressive. If the aim of the competition is to raise revenue and inspire a new generation of supporters, it has been an unmitigated success.

To this end, a group of county chief executives have been pursuing the English game's broadcast options. ESPNcricinfo understands that it is highly likely that some domestic cricket will return to free-to-air TV this year - likely to be a NatWest Blast highlights show - in a bid to reach out to a new audience. The county CEOs believe the arrangement is permitted under the current broadcast deal and, while Sky believe they would have to give approval, there does not appear to be any attempt - at present - to prevent it. That could change.

There are legitimate questions to ask about the precise value of free-to-air coverage, too. Tennis - and Wimbledon, in particular - is given tremendous coverage on free-to-air TV but it does not appear to have created a generation of players. Equally, Channel 5 already broadcast international highlights during peak viewing hours in a lively, well-produced show: it seems to have done little to stem the tide.

Nor is it clear which free-to-air channels have any desire to broadcast cricket. There has been little interest from traditional broadcasters in recent bidding processes and it is safe to assume that Sky chose to show highlights of the last Ashes tour on its Pick channel only because there was no significant demand elsewhere. The uncomfortable truth is that cricket really isn't inspiring schedulers. Sky may well be the best friend English cricket has.

It would be simplistic to claim a return to free to air TV will solve all the ills of the game. The selling of school playing fields, the changing nature of teaching, the growth of other leisure pursuits and pastimes have all conspired to reduce the opportunities for young people to play the game. The world has changed. Cricket, with its sometimes demanding need for pitch preparation, equipment and, most of all, time, sometimes seems as relevant to modern society as Morris dancing and origami.

But if enthusiasm can be sparked there is always a way and free-to-air cricket must surely have a part to play in providing that. As the Afghanistan players emerging from the refugee camps of Pakistan remind us, if the spark is lit, the game will grow. Even when they had balls made from tape and bats fashioned from wooden posts and panels, their enthusiasm found a way. Once a love for cricket is born, it often proves irrepressible.

But unless there is that initial spark, unless a new generation is given the opportunity to stumble upon the game - as an earlier generation did through the BBC's Sunday League coverage - they will never have that chance. The current ECB leadership seems not to understand that not everything of value can be packaged and sold.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo