February 21, 2012

An odd couple?

An established cricket magazine and start-up, online commentary set-up have joined forces. Can it work?

At first glance, the sale of Test Match Sofa to the Cricketer seems improbable. The Sofa is an irreverent on-line, audio service operating, some say, on the margins of the law, while the Cricketer is one of the most traditional brands in cricket, still offering a monthly magazine in a world that now requires immediate information.

Actually, the mutual attraction is obvious. The Cricketer, under new editorship, is keen to reach out to a younger audience. The Cricketer retains a subscriber list of around 30,000, but the readership is generally mature, male and white.

Test Match Sofa's need was to secure funding to secure its future. It is understood the deal will cost the Cricketer in excess of £100,000 (USD 158,000) and will include podcasts and written articles as well as ball-by-ball commentary of all England internationals.

Test Match Sofa's acquisition is somewhat controversial. There are those who believe that the service they provide - audio commentary - flouts the exclusive broadcasting rights deals owned by the likes of Sky and the BBC. The Sofa's team commentate from a location in London where they watch the games unfold on television. It is a tactic that has, in the past, also been utilised by talkSPORT and bypasses the requirement to pay for any rights.

This offers a dilemma for the BBC and ECB in particular. While some at ECB cautiously welcome Test Match Sofa, concluding that its informality might encourage a new audience to follow a game, others are concerned that their service undermines the worth of the broadcasting deals that help finance the game at all levels in England and Wales. What would happen, officials at the BBC say, if they also refused to pay for broadcasting rights, but remained in the UK and commentated from television? The simple answer is that the finances of the game would suffer.

To add salt to the wound, in accordance with the BBC's deal with the ECB, listeners outside the UK are unable to access the BBC's Test Match Special commentary service. Test Match Sofa, however, is available free to anyone with an internet connection and has been funded by donations, advertising and membership, which buys access to exclusive content. The Sofa lures in alongside its regulars a collection of comedians, current and former players and other figures in some way related to cricket to offer a ball-by-ball commentary service. In the interests of transparency, it is worth adding at this point that I have appeared as a guest on several occasions.

The Sofa will never offer the mass market appeal of Test Match Special. Some will be turned off by the swear words; some will be turned off by the irreverent approach; some will simply prefer the more polished formality of the BBC.

But some people love it, valuing the balance between humour and information and its laid-back style in which it is presented. They love the accessibility of the presenters - listeners are encouraged to engage with the commentary team and emails and tweets are read out regularly. It is like watching the game in the pub with a group of knowledgeable friends. Besides, it is perfectly possible to enjoy both Test Match Sofa and Test Match Special. The latter remains, despite all the changes to the game and the world in which it is played, one of the gems of the BBC.

Leaving issues of taste to one side, there are those who claim that The Sofa must be crushed in order to preserve the worth of the broadcasting rights deals. Giles Clarke recently suggested that "pirate websites" offer "the greatest danger facing the game". It is unclear whether he counts The Sofa as such a pirate.

As things stand, it appears The Sofa's operation is within the law. Several parties have, it is understood, taken legal advice and the consensus is that, so long as The Sofa does not claim to be doing anything other commentating from a remote location, they are breaking no law.

It may well be that the ECB and BBC push for legislation to be tightened to outlaw such services as those provided by Test Mach Sofa. Even if the government did not have rather more pressing matters than subduing the aspirations of an amiable bunch of cricket lovers, the ECB may find that the Cricketer is not without influence in high places.

It may be relevant that one of the directors of the Cricketer is Lord Marland. Marland stood against Clarke for the chairmanship of the ECB in 2009 and, as a consequence, there is little love lost between the pair. Neil Davidson, the former chief executive of Leicestershire, is also a director of the Cricketer and has an equally frosty relationship with Clarke. Marland, in particular, is a not insubstantial foe. He is a former treasurer of the Conservative Party and current Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

There is an intriguing sub-plot here. Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's cricket correspondent, is also an investor in the Cricketer. As a passionate defender of the BBC, he is concerned by the Cricketer's decision to embrace a rival and a rival he does not care for. It has placed Agnew in a tricky position. It is very hard to see how his relationship with the Cricketer can survive. Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Vic Marks - also key contributors to Test Match Special and The Cricketer - may be wrestling with a similar conflict about the development.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Nick on February 23, 2012, 23:00 GMT

    To be generous to Giles Clarke, I'll assume he was thinking more in terms of the websites that illegally stream TV broadcasts, and either request donations or put up their own ads around the video. Those sites are very obviously ripping off a subscription-only product. You might want Sky or ESPN Star or other regional broadcasters to open up live video for a fee, or for the option of listening to TMS or ABC Grandstand outside their domestic markets, but for the moment, that's not happening, and that's within the rights of the national boards and broadcasters.

    The Sofa? Very different. They're not violating TMS's exclusive rights to commentate from the ground, and the broadcasts they rely upon are muted, so there's no rights violation there either. What they are doing is cultivating an irreverent enthusiasm that is surely good for the game, and the management at The Cricketer seems to agree.

  • Steve on February 23, 2012, 19:50 GMT

    Personally, I can't imagine sitting at home and watching the cricket without the company of Test Match Sofa, their light hearted approach to the game will often leave you in stitches but their knowledge and insights into the cricket can be fascinating too. Add the interactive nature of their programming and they have transformed watching cricket on your own, to watching it with a group of mates. They dont take themselves too seriously , you can see this from the jingles and their excellent theme tune, it is truely a refreshing way to listen to cricket. The deal between the cricketer and the sofa is excellent and will surely benefit both parties.

  • Steven on February 22, 2012, 19:14 GMT

    Like many I guess I grew up listening to Test Match Special and I always thought it was the only way to listen to and enjoy cricket. I am happy to say I was wrong. I came to The Sofa during the 2010-11 Ashes series and never have I enjoyed sleepless nights as much. They used to say listening to TMS (BBC) was like watching cricket with a bunch of friends, that is most certainly the case with The Sofa and I'm not sure it is the case with TMS anymore. The Sofa's style is irreverant yes but they know their cricket. Not only do they know their cricket but like so many of us they love the game. I'm a BBC licence payer and a Sky subscriber so I have plenty of ways to "consume" cricket but I know how valuable The Sofa's coverage is to those overseas. You only have to read where some of the tweets come from. Surely that has to be good for the game? Maybe I'm wrong, maybe the powers that be in cricket want to keep it elite? I will continue to support The Sofa as long as continues.

  • Kate on February 22, 2012, 13:34 GMT

    I came across Test Match Sofa back in 2009 when I was searching for a website which would broadcast TMS illegally (it has happened in the past). As I don't live in the UK, it is extremely frustrating not having access to live cricket commentary. If TMS (that's the BBC) won't buy the global rights for their commentary, then they deserve to be on the receiving end of any online competition. Saying that, even for cricket where I can get TMS online, I choose to listen to the Sofa. If their knowledge was not up to scratch, I would have ditched them ages ago but the combination of ball by ball commentary and some un PC piss-take humour is refreshing. The tireless effort Dan, Hendo & everyone else has put into The Sofa should be recognised. How many commentators on TMS would do their work for no money and just for the love of the game? Let Test Match Sofa flourish in parallel to The Cricketer and keep insulting the bad man of cricket which is Giles Clarke.

  • John on February 22, 2012, 13:18 GMT

    The more diverse views on cricket the better, and the Sofa provides more diverse views than most. Long may it continue, particularly if it brings a new style of article into the Cricketer that can sit nicely alongside the old school. Cricinfo itself is a testimony to the breadth of cricketing opinions and how they can live together. Where else would you get the views of Andy Zaltzman and Jarrod Kimber with those of Ian Chappell and Geoffrey Boycott?

  • Joss on February 22, 2012, 11:24 GMT

    I actually like the Sky Sports / BBC TMS balance, I hated the Channel 4 / BBC TV coverage. Sky have improved it immensely, and their money has also helped the grass roots. If you want classic coverage, you can listen to the BBC radio coverage if you are in the UK. If you speak English, like cricket, don't have access to BBC or TV, then you can't go wrong with Test Match Sofa. As an expat in the South of France, you can't get BBC 4 longwave access, so what am I to do? Look at the Cricinfo updates? Test Match Sofa provides a service to people who have no other option. It also has a good following from non-UK nationals. I would lose all respect for the authorities in the UK if they started getting involved for completely the wrong reasons. I just hope that the Cricketer don't impose things on the Sofa team.

  • Simon on February 22, 2012, 2:57 GMT

    interesting news -- i hadn't heard about this yet. I am a huge fan of both TMS and The Sofa. As an expat, they've already made it illegal for me to listen to TMS. I hope they don't contrive to make it illegal for me to listen to the Sofa too... Such laws are ridiculous, even if they do constitute not much more than, er, "urinating" into the wind, but it is mildly inconvenient to have to circumvent these things. // No-one should be surprised to find that Giles Clarke is out-of-touch when it comes to such matters, but your identification of some of the people behind The Cricketer is worrying: it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the "big beasts" who run cricket are motivated more by politics and ego than anything else (certainly than by what's best for the game), and somehow I imagine this deal will serve to make the likes of Clarke more interested in taking action than before.

  • Dummy4 on February 21, 2012, 22:27 GMT

    The biggest threat to the future of cricket? Giles Clarke. A friend (who has been known to commentate on the Sofa) recently said she could have wept whilst watching repeats of the final days play from the Ashes in 2005. So could I. My Love for the game of cricket, above all other sport to which I was exposed as a boy came about through watching TV. By driving up the price of cricket not only will more people be unable to watch it and see the game but more and more ways will be found for people to listen to or watch the cricket for free. The technology transcends national and legal boundaries and moves faster than the law can keep up.

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