November 9, 2007

Bad publicity is no publicity

Cricket Australia's stand-off with the media is all wrong

News Ltd journalists try to get a peek at the action after being locked out of the Gabba due to an accreditation dispute with Cricket Australia © Getty Images

If you go by the way Cricket Australia has handled the dispute with the media, which came to a head on the first day of the Brisbane Test, you might be forgiven for thinking that cricket is such a massive and successful sport that it doesn't need publicity to keep it high on the global agenda.

The reality is quite the opposite. Cricket is battling to maintain a hold even in its traditional heartlands. As the main agencies' representatives were locked out of the Gabba, another Test was starting in Johannesburg. The attendance was what official sources might describe as disappointing and others might call pathetic. With the exception of some one-dayers and international cricket in a select few countries, it's pretty much the same story globally.

Cricket has to battle with other more consumer-friendly sports that have a far slicker and more worldly-wise approach. In England it is squeezed in between the ubiquitous football as well as rugby and golf. It's much the same in South Africa. Even in India, seen as the core of the cricket world, the youngsters are increasingly turning to football and F1.

So cricket cannot afford to shun publicity. And yet that's just what CA is doing - well, it's actually getting additional publicity for itself, but almost all of the negative kind. By looking purely in terms of cash at what it thinks it has a divine right to, it has taken a stand.

CA has had an uneasy relationship with the media for a while now. It has looked to impose restrictions on what can be covered, and how frequently, before, most notably last season when it climbed down in the face of media anger and a lucrative Ashes series. But Sri Lanka are not so internationally attractive and so this time the board means business. It has even hired the monolithic International Media Group to advise them on how best to tackle this issue. By deliberately refusing to deal with it until the last minute, CA also ensured that there would be a showdown. It seems that it chose where and when it wanted to make a stand.

Other sports will be watching with interest after failed attempts to flex their muscles in a similar way. In 2006, football looked to place restrictions on photo coverage of the World Cup. Faced with the threat of a worldwide freeze on coverage, FIFA backed down. Even the world's biggest sport realised that publicity was its lifeblood. In September this year it was rugby's turn, as organisers of the World Cup sought to impose similar restrictions. Again the media threatened a blackout and the International Rugby Board backed down after photographers turned up at a commercial photo shoot and took pictures of the grass as a protest.

So why is Cricket Australia digging its heels in? Its media manager Peter Young - who was placed in an embarrassing position after some misguided swipes at Rupert Murdoch - argued that "where cricket generates commercial value, we believe that some of it should be available for investment in the future of cricket".

It is believed that CA is asking for A$5000 for Australian media organisations and A$10,000 for international agencies to cover the series. When compared with the size of the multi-million - even billion - dollar TV deals done these days, the sums are tiny and really won't make any difference to the board's finances.

The news organisations counter that they have never paid to cover what is essentially news, and they also raise concerns that CA is looking to control what they report, as well, by restricting access. There is also a suspicion that once the precedent has been set, the charges will rocket. It will also open the floodgates for every other sport to reconsider and possibly to start charging in the same way.

CA appears to see the relationship as a one-way affair: the media use the sport to make cash and give nothing back. What it seems unable to grasp is that without the media, the sport becomes marginalised. CA might counter that TV is what matters. That would be simplistic and foolish. While many people do watch on television, they also follow the sport in newspapers and on the web.

Put simply, there is no parallel to this. Whether it be the Oscars, a political convention, or the Spice Girls reunion, the news media is allowed to cover it for free. Sponsors and organisers want to see their products and events given as much free publicity as they can, and what better way to do this than have photos splashed in as many publications as possible?

So the Brisbane match started with the three global news agencies - Agence France-Presse, Reuters, and Associated Press - and News Limited locked out of the ground. Getty Images, the leading global photo agency, were also barred from providing pictures.

It will be interesting to see who blinks first in this standoff. A couple of Australian papers have backed down, albeit while making noises about there not having been any compromises to their editorial integrity, but there is little chance of the agencies caving in.

In the end, unless common sense comes to the fore, the only losers will be the public and the game itself.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo