November 12, 2009

A terrestrial return would cripple English cricket

Having made their bed with Rupert Murdoch and feathered it to the tune of £300 million over four years, the ECB should not be ejected from it

First, a confession. I came to cricket by accident, towards the end of the 1980s, when for five days in every fortnight of the summer holidays, my regular BBC viewing would be hijacked by a bunch of blokes in white, doing a whole lot of not-a-lot for hours and hours on end. Using an eleven-year-old's blend of inquisitiveness and idleness, I parked on my sofa and resolved to work out what on earth was going on, and slowly but surely a habit was formed that has lasted a lifetime.

Yes, my cricket obsession began in exactly the manner envisaged by the department of culture, media and sport, who have received their recommendations from David Davies, the former chief executive of the FA, and are set to announce that from 2016 onwards, the Ashes should be restored to the list of terrestrial TV's sporting "crown jewels". You might think I'd be delighted that a whole new generation of children are being offered the same route into the sport that I love. In actual fact, the notion fills me with dread.

Make no mistake, this is a move that could cripple the finances of English cricket. The ECB have been criticised, and rightly so, for the series of decisions that brought them to this point in time - but having made their bed with Rupert Murdoch and feathered it to the tune of £300 million over four years, it's only right that they should be left to lie in it. Instead, in what is being portrayed in some quarters as the Government's revenge on Murdoch for The Sun's switch of allegiance to the Conservatives, the ECB are being forcibly ejected from their bed, and cast out into the cold of a recession-hit economy.

The decision to re-classify the Ashes is misguided for two principle reasons, and that's even before the monetary aspect is taken into account. Firstly, it fails to take into account the massive and ongoing revolution in viewing practices that is underway in Britain and across the world right now. With the analogue switch-over now in full swing, and 2016 still a lifetime away in technological terms, who knows what will constitute "terrestrial TV" in seven years' time anyway? Whatever it is, it won't be the quartet of BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel Four that my generation knew growing up, and which compelled us to stick with the cricket because there was simply nothing better to be found on other channels.

Of course it would be nice if the peak that was reached for Sky's Ashes coverage this summer - 1.9 million - could come close to rivalling the 7.2 million who watched Kevin Pietersen's series-seizing onslaught at The Oval four years earlier, but times they are a-changing - and never in the history of mankind have they changed at a greater pace. Gone are the days when Morecambe and Wise could pull in 28 million viewers for their Christmas specials. No single media event will ever again be foisted on its viewers for want of an alternative.

At present, a bog-standard "freeview" package provides up to 35 "terrestrial" channels, including BBC Three and Four, E4, BBC News, Sky News, and CBBC. And that's not to mention perhaps the single most alluring alternative for today's bored youth, the internet, which has grown exponentially since 1998, the year in which the ECB took their home Tests off the Crown Jewels list. Even as recently as 11 years ago, the notion of a live event being streamed through a computer was still the stuff of fantasy. Last summer, Sky offered that very service to all its subscribers.

It takes a special dedication to commit seven hours a day, 35 hours a week, 175 hours a series, to watch an Ashes series end-to-end. As a point of comparison, you could watch the entire Premier League campaigns of Manchester United and Chelsea in that same period

The other unquantifiable factor is the sheer length of a Test match, and the astonishing scheduling commitment that it entails. Anyone can put aside 20 minutes to watch the Grand National, and most people of the right persuasion will set aside a three-hour window at the weekend to watch the FA Cup final. It takes a special dedication, however, to commit seven hours a day, 35 hours a week, 175 hours a series, to watch an Ashes series end-to-end.

As a point of comparison, you could watch the entire Premier League campaigns of Manchester United and Chelsea in that same period, with time left over to catch all the goals from the rest of the season. In fact, it is such a commitment that the BBC did not even bid for a highlights package when the rights were last reviewed in 2008, a fact that sent Giles Clarke into paroxysms of rage, particularly in light of their successful bid for that most exclusive of sports, Formula One.

But we all forget the gripes that the BBC's coverage regularly caused. Graham Gooch's 300th run at Lord's in 1990, for instance, was missed because they were showing the runners and riders for the 4.05 at Ascot. The news and weather would regularly cut into key passages of play, and even when Channel Four upped the ante with their groundbreaking coverage from 1999 to 2005, they still courted controversy when the traditional 11 o'clock start-time had to be brought forward by half an hour to allow their disgruntled regular viewers to tune into Hollyoaks on the dot of 6.30pm.

Clearly, cricket is too cumbersome a product to please everyone, no matter where it finds its home, but a dedicated sports channel is surely as good a place as any to set up home in an age in which the consumer is king - not least because the casual fan, who comes in search of the football, is more likely to hang around and take notice. What is more, for all the criticism of Sky Sports, they do have a vested interest in honouring their commitments to grassroots cricket, because it is only by getting their viewers up off their couches and into the nets that they can hope to perpetuate an interest in the sport.

Twenty percent of Sky's money is channelled directly into grassroots cricket, and that is the money that is most at threat if the government gets its way. Since 2006, 23,000 coaches have been brought through the system, including 10,000 in the last year alone, while the Chance to Shine programme, which seeks to bridge the gulf between clubs and schools, has got 800,000 children involved in the game since 2005.

Meanwhile the massive success enjoyed by England's women cricketers - Ashes winners and double World Champions - is directly attributable to the funding they have received that has enabled their key players to turn semi-professional. At the other end of the spectrum are the lucrative salaries that the elite men now enjoy. If, as the ECB fear, a third of their £85 million annual turnover could be wiped out by the decision, it will become ever more difficult to keep the lure of the IPL at bay.

It is especially unhelpful that only Ashes matches have been targeted - it is the equivalent of selling the rights to the Premier League but excluding all matches involving the big four. What is more, it enshrines the fallacy that England versus Australia is the only contest that counts. Like those bogbrush-haired fools Jedward on another of terrestrial TV's gems, X Factor, there is often a subtle distinction between the best and the most popular.

The Olympics is a showcase for the best, as are football World Cups and Wimbledon, which also happens to be the most prestigious of four Grand Slams. The 2005 Ashes was also a showcase for the best, because it featured the two leading teams in the world - one of which was arguably the greatest of all time - going toe-to-toe in a contest that England hadn't won for 18 years.

The 2009 Ashes, on the other hand, was a tussle between Nos. 2 and 5 in the world, while Ricky Ponting was the only globally renowned player to feature in all five matches. By 2016, who knows where in the rankings the two teams will lie, and who will be the star names. With the Rio Olympics and the European Football Championships also competing for airtime in that particularly crowded summer, cricket will surely find itself pining for its satellite certainties of old.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Akil on November 19, 2009, 13:16 GMT

    Andrew, since this only applies to home Ashes series, then surely the first Ashes series that would be broadcast under the new terms would be in 2017 and not 2016? So the worry about the series being up against the Olympics and the Euro Championships wouldn't be an issue.

  • John on November 16, 2009, 8:36 GMT

    the truth can be found at Which other countries have a similar set up to us in the Uk? Aussies don't, Indians, dont, Sri Lankans don't etc

  • Jem on November 15, 2009, 21:54 GMT

    I'm a cricket fan who was drawn to the sport in the days of watching the John Player League on Sundays; I have also spent most of the last decade as chairman of our local cricket club (which dates back to the 1880's) and as a coach of the U11's team, so I hope I'm in a better place to comment than most on this issue. In 2005 our club was buzzing with an influx of Juniors on the back of the Ashes series. In the four years that have followed, with the loss of cricket from terrestrial TV, the club has crumbled, with a dearth of new youngsters, such that we are barely able to field 3 junior teams. In all that time we have not received a penny of grant aid from the ECB (and indeed, following a fire, we survived only thanks to a donation from our local Sainsburys store!) Where is all this "grass roots" money going? Not into grass roots, for sure - but into lining the pockets of our highly paid international cricketers, South African Bosman players and of course the game's administrators!

  • Peter on November 15, 2009, 19:31 GMT

    There are far too many "executives" in modern cricket who sit comfortably on large salaries.

    The size and scale of the support team for England tours (presumably funded by Sky money) is an embarrassment.

    There is no obvious reason why "cutting central contracts in half" -- as has been mooted by the ECB -- is necessarily a calamity.

    (Contentiously) If the county system cannot survive on it's own, I don't see why it should be subsidised by couch potatoes.

    Cricket will only survive if it's in the public eye. The (Summer) Olympics grab public attention every four years; the (Soccer) World Cup grabs public attention every four years. The (UK) Ashes should be allowed to do the same.

    I think that Sky have done an extraordinarily good job in televising cricket over the last ten or so years. I also think they should be allowed to broadcast the (UK) Ashes for free, in recognition of this fact. But the Ashes are, quite literally, a national treasure. We own them. The ECB does not.

  • Sir on November 15, 2009, 14:33 GMT

    Just take a look at the logo in the top left corner of this page and you'll see where this article is coming from. It's disappointing and totally undermines Miller's reputation as a reporter with any kind of integrity. Shame on you. Cricket will survive with or without money.

  • Arron on November 15, 2009, 11:39 GMT

    Sorry, but as freaky and uncool as it may sound in this day and age, this is one of those things that's about more than money. Comments from members of cricket cluibs suggest that profile from free-to-air TV is more important than any money that trickles down to the grass roots. Anyway, since when has trickle-down economics been a science as opposed to a nice theory? That said, Sky (and before them C4) have set the bar so high that many cricket fans will be rightly livid if a terrestrial bidder can't match their devotion to good coverage. Also, I don't like the fact that the Ashes is separated from other series. I know it belongs on a pedestal because of history, but the fact remains that (2005 apart) the best Test cricket involving England for the last 15 years has consistently been the series against South Africa, which have recently (and rightly) been granted 'icon' status.

  • James on November 14, 2009, 21:53 GMT

    Unlike Mr Miller, I first watched the ashes in 1956, when I was 10, on a neighbours black and white TV and from that day on I loved the game and watched all home games, including the Sunday afternoon matches with John Arlott. Since the Sky took over I have not watched a match. The cost of Sky is far too expensive and pensioners, on a state pension, have not got a hope of paying for it and they are the ones who have the time to watch. I have watched highlights and it appears to me that players are chasing financial rewards rather than the love of playing and the quality of English cricket is subsequently on the wain. England without Andrew Flintoff or Kevin Pietersen is flat. If England have got new exciting players I will not know as I cannot watch the games. I would ask for a rethink, cricket needs money but they need supporters too and if things do not change the game will die out. Sky is just too expensive

  • Riyas on November 14, 2009, 12:49 GMT

    what rubbish even the ECB had £1billion who r they going to spend it on if no one wants to play cricket?? you just have to compare the amount of interest in cricket in the subcontinent where even series wehre the home nation is not playing is free to air and the level of interest in the UK.

  • Flym on November 14, 2009, 10:51 GMT

    I don't understand why there is all this scaremongering by people like Mr Miller. Sky have only been broadcasting domestic matches since 2006, and yet some people are making out that Sky have been generously funding English cricket for decades and that this is an attempt to rob the ECB. Are we supposed to believe that before Sky acquired the broadcast rights that county cricket was poverty-stricken? . Giles Clarke famously said that cricket is just like any other business. People like him need to realise that it is not a business. They seem to be forgetting that cricket is a spectator sport and it is important for it to be availiable to as many spectators as poissible. It is just a symptom of the modern obsession with money above everything else. I really hope that we will see cricket back where it belongs, on terrestrial television, whatever that may look like in 2016.

  • Michael on November 13, 2009, 20:54 GMT

    Sky,God bless them, are totally 100% committed to showing cricket,not just Tests and alone of any Broadcaster do the great game justice. Should they be deprived of one summer every 4 years given what they put in? Over the course of the later years of C20 the BBC systematicallly tried to make it unfashionalbe,just by the very somnolence of their presentation, the outdated non grooviness of the music at beginning and end, and their failure to show much other than internationals.One or two of the commentators were a panacea for insomnia. Their forte rather ilies in the presentation of Logos,and totally stupid cookery programmes and housemakovers.About twice a week they arise from the dead to allow a very good comedy programme,surely the only good thing do. BBC are not worth really £10 a yaer licence fee. They have 4 channels but still can't put on good programmes unless you like watching under age pregnancy stuff-yawn! Is anything worse than the return of cricket to BBC?

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