BBC Sports Personality of the Year December 2, 2015

Cricket is losing the popularity contest

The absence of any cricketers from the BBC's annual awards bash is another stark warning of the invisibility of the sport in the British mainstream
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Watch - Joe Root was England's outstanding batsman of the 2015 Ashes

There are some things - good teeth, a parachute, a car that starts in wet weather - that you appreciate more in their absence.

So it was when the contenders were announced for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award. In a year when England have won the Ashes, when Joe Root has been rated - albeit briefly - the best Test batsman in the world and when Stuart Broad has bowled out Australia in a session, there was no room for a cricketer in the 12-strong list.

That is not to denigrate the merits of each contender or accept the somewhat self-congratulatory worth of the award. But there was a time when Ashes success warranted open-top bus rides through Trafalgar Square and MBEs all round. There was a time when cricket seemed to matter more.

But that was when cricket was broadcast on free-to-air television. And, whatever the many merits of Sky's coverage of England cricket over the last decade or so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the game, starved of the oxygen of publicity in the UK, is diminishing in relevance by the year.

The broadcast deal is not cricket's only issue. Many school playing fields are long gone and cricket, with its demand for time and facilities, cannot reasonably be expected to fit into many teachers' timetables. The world has changed and a game that lasts either a full afternoon or five days may have lost its appeal to a quicker, more impatient world.

When Warwickshire first won the County Championship, a huge crowd greeted their return to New Street Station; if they win it next year, the local paper will pick up a short report paid for by the ECB and find a column inside the paper for it. The warning signs are everywhere.

Which is why T20 cricket - and televised free-to-air T20 cricket - is so vital. It is the vehicle by which the game can reconnect and inspire another generation of players and supporters. The hugely encouraging spectator numbers in 2015, spectator numbers that owe a great deal to the marketing nous of some counties, shows there is hope and potential. It remains a great game. We just need to expose more people to it.

It seems the penny has dropped. While nothing is yet resolved, it does seem that some key figures at the ECB have accepted the counties' argument that free-to-air coverage - either on television or on-line - has a part to play in the next television deal.

They had hoped that a new, city-based T20 league would enable them to squeeze enough money out of the next broadcast deal to make the problem go away for a while. But the counties saw, to their credit, that this would have been a short-term solution. They saw that all the redeveloped stadiums in the land and a bank account boasting reserves of £80m or more (as the ECB have) was no use if those stadiums were rarely full.

They saw, unlike the previous regime at the ECB, that money does not make everything alright. That not everything of value can be packaged and sold. That they exist to nurture and develop the sport and the money they make is a valuable tool to that end, not the end in itself.

Cricket Australia have already journeyed that way. They took a hit on the Big Bash broadcasting deal, realising that it was more important for the sport to reach a mass audience on free-to-air TV rather than earn short-term riches on a subscription panel. They have pointed the way for the ECB.

It currently seems likely (it could change) that, between 2017 and 2019 at least, the English domestic T20 tournament will be played in two divisions with broadcasters focussing almost exclusively on the top division. Many of the counties hope that format will remain long after the new broadcast deals begin in 2020; some at Lord's hope it will be a Trojan horse for an eight- or nine-team event. If that latter argument wins in an era of subscription-only coverage, the game will become invisible across vast tracts of the country. It will retract yet further.

That would be a missed opportunity. For there is, right now, much to like about English cricket. While football - with its spoilt-brat millionaire heroes - has lost touch with the man in the street, cricketers have re-engaged. They play with a smile, they stop for autographs and photos. They remind us that it is perfectly possible to be hugely talented, successful and likeable.

The national team play exciting, joyful cricket. They have, in Jos Buttler, a man who can produce the sort of innings we used to see only when the finest Caribbean cricketers played the county game. They have, in Ben Stokes, an allrounder to make football-loving kids want to pick up a bat and ball; a man in Joe Root who might be the finest batsman in the world; a leader in Charlotte Edwards who has remained at the top of her sport throughout her career and done a great deal to further her sport. And, at a time when a few shrill voices would have us believe that communities of different faiths and cultures cannot coexist, a man in Moeen Ali who gently shows us otherwise. There is much to celebrate in cricket.

Whatever the many merits of Sky's coverage of England cricket over the last decade or so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the game, starved of the oxygen of publicity in the UK, is diminishing in relevance by the year

But who will know unless they have a cricket-loving parent, they attend a private school or they come from an Asian community where the game remains relevant? How will the sport reach a new audience? How, in the long-term, will the value of the broadcast deals be maintained if the market diminishes? Cricket in England has become a niche and the absence of a cricketer in the Sports Personality of the Year list is another sign.

The money earned over the last few years has enabled the ECB to do many admirable things. They have led the way in the funding of disability cricket, the development of women's cricket and the improvement of facilities from the grassroots to the international game. All of this would have been desperately difficult without Sky's investment.

Nor is the past is not quite as marvellous as is remembered. Channel 4's coverage of two Ashes series - now talked about as if it were a golden age - 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. Still, for many of us, it was our gateway drug to this great game. And yes, it seems to fair to reflect whether the BBC, for all the excellence of its radio coverage, for all its good intentions and the fine things it stands for, is currently keeping its side of the bargain when it comes to broadcasting sport.

Since 2006, Sky, with their multiple cameras, has taken cricket coverage to a new level. By broadcasting all England games home and away - something of which we could not dream 25 years ago - guaranteeing weeks of county coverage each season, and their 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, they probably offer 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 virtues of their coverage, the fact is that vast sections of the country have no access to live cricket on television. In a nation where an uncomfortable number have the need of foodbanks, it is grotesque to think most could afford subscription TV if they only cared enough.

And whatever the benefits of sending coaches into primary schools - and Sky's money has helped fund Chance to Shine - it is hard to believe that 1,000 hours of helping kids hit tennis balls off cones will ever replace one hour of inspiration provided by watching the likes of Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff or Ben Stokes lead England to the Ashes. Nothing can replace the oxygen of publicity. The benefits of the Sky money have long since been counteracted by the negatives in the reduced audience.

The water has been rising round our feet for some time. We have seen reports of falling participation numbers, we have seen England teams disproportionately reliant upon cricketers who learned the game either abroad or in public schools, and we have seen newspapers that used to take pride in their county cricket coverage abandon it almost completely. We have seen poorly attended international games - only the Ashes seems to be immune from the decline - we have seen club sides amalgamate and fail, and the days when domestic Lord's finals sold out appear long gone. The absence of a cricketer from the Sport's Personality of the Year list - whatever the imperfections of that contest - is the latest symbol of the decline. We're fools to ignore it.

This is not meant to sound pessimistic. Were there a fire in the building, one could remain optimistic of escape while still sounding the alarm. We have a great game to offer. But, as Bob Dylan put it, let us not talk falsely now, for the hour is getting late.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jon on December 9, 2015, 13:01 GMT

    I don't agree with this article. How many sports are free to watch in the UK? There is very little live football on anything but pay TV and that is still jsut as popular. As for the point; "And whatever the benefits of sending coaches into primary schools - and Sky's money has helped fund Chance to Shine - it is hard to believe that 1,000 hours of helping kids hit tennis balls off cones will ever replace one hour of inspiration provided by watching the likes of Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff or Ben Stokes lead England to the Ashes"... The 1000s of hours gets my vote.

  • paul on December 6, 2015, 0:58 GMT

    @markbrop I can't agree any problems are because KP's missing, Although I know a fair number of mates who follow England on tour around the world etc, still miss watching him bat. I think the period after the Ashes & the poor handling of KP, then the Moores reign lead to many disheartened fans,gradually that changed. I'm still a big KP fan, why wouldn't I be, he's one of England's greatest players. Watched all his games out in SA & agree with you that the standard of comp in SA is better than the English version, which is absolutely dire at times. KP looked in awesome form, has done since the Big Bash last year, although haters won't give him any credit for any knock since 2012 The Notts boys may say different but lets be right that Gallian affair was only because KP wanted to move at the end of the season when Notts got demoted & Gallian threw a hissy fit behind KP's back, great Captaincy. Went onto avg 52 the year after that & avg 56 with 16 tons while there, yet they still whinge

  • paul on December 6, 2015, 0:04 GMT

    Do people still take SPOTY seriously still? After Zara Phillips won in 2006 and then Ryan Giggs won in 2009 it's always been seen plenty of people as a bit of joke. Lets be right it's always favored the individual sportsman massively over the years, just look at this year. That's why a sport like Athletics which is hardly any more popular than cricket has won it 17 times and placed 48 times, easily the most. The next best is another individual sport of sorts & that's Formula One with 7 wins & 14 placed. Even the so called most loved British sport football has only won it 5 times and placed 20, which is only one more win than Cricket. Rugby Union that's usually seen as a similar in terms as popularity to cricket as won 1 times, what does that tell us? Add to that I don't think it's been a vintage year by any stretch. Gone are the days of a nomination for beating the Aussies, it's become the norm in Test cricket the past decade. Saying that I'd have Root over a few of them tbh.

  •   Tom Pearce on December 5, 2015, 21:17 GMT

    My son is aged 23.He played youth cricket from 10 to 17 years of age to a reasonable standard. In his last under 17 game he announced it was his last game of cricket. Why "because it's too bloody long, I have far better things to do with my time than spending all day standing around"

  • Mihil on December 5, 2015, 18:17 GMT

    But I would criticise my previous post! How is it that cricket thrives in Oz? What's different? I think in the UK, cricket is a bit like rugby. It is a sport seen as middle/upper class. From what I have seen, people will try to take an interest when the Ashes, Six nations and WC's are taking place, but after that they completely forget about it! In Oz it seems as though a bloke is a bloke. Class is less of an issue and I think this makes the sport more 'open' to regular jo's down under. Cricket does have that image- MCC, blazers, ties, politicians and film stars rocking up to Lords etc. Even a lot of public will attend wearing blazers and shirts.

  • Mihil on December 5, 2015, 18:08 GMT

    It's a cultural thing too. The mantra for modern life is 'instant'. At least in the UK, where I am. There is an app for everything. We want the pleasure to come to us and we don't want to do things ourselves. But it is in the doing that most of the enjoyment comes from. Kids growing up today can live their lives by hitting a button. Did cricket really expect to survive against the stimulation overload that is provided by social media and smart phones. The pleasures derived from cricket can be a culmination of a long days work. Somebody wrote an article here a few weeks back on why cricket is the greatest of sports. I saw a video of Taunton packed out to the rafters as people wanted to watch Sir Viv bat when he played over here in England. Would that happen for a county game today- not a chance. Not for Warne, not for Tendulkar.

  • James on December 5, 2015, 8:01 GMT

    Whilst respecting George's views, isn't the BBC Sports Personnality of the Year an irelevance now as BBC hardly cover sport. In fact at the ceremony they have to use "borrowed" items from other channels. Golf next year will be 100% on Sky even The Open.

  • Mike on December 4, 2015, 15:26 GMT

    There are no male soccer players, either. How does that fit with the thesis?

  • markbrop on December 4, 2015, 13:42 GMT

    I've just checked the 2013 nominations and as I thought Ian Bell was among them. And that was well after the Sky deal.

  • markbrop on December 4, 2015, 13:31 GMT

    2929paul - "average club cricketers" - he has faced at least three SA internationals in Parnell, Tsotsobe and Phangiso in the Ram Slam. And SA domestic cricket is stronger than English county cricket BTW.