The digital revolution that could save Test cricket
There is only one contender for the unofficial role of the father of modern cricket and his name is Kerry Packer. The hulking Australian has been in his grave for the best part of a decade, but his influence continues to be felt every time cricket appears on television. His World Series Cricket introduced a bewildering number of innovations within its two-year lifespan: night-time matches, a white ball, fielding circles, coloured clothing, drop-in pitches, cameras at both ends of the ground and microphones in the stumps. But more than any of these, the real legacy of WSC has been the introduction of competition to the process of awarding broadcasting rights.
Prior to WSC, cricket administration, if not the sport itself, had been thoroughly resistant to commercial realities. There was no such thing as a professional Australian cricketer, for example, as wages were so low. The Australian board was happy to receive a fraction of what its rights were worth, keeping its players just out of penury, but also denying itself the opportunity to improve training, fitness and its own facilities. The situation was the same in England, where the BBC paid a meagre sum for Test coverage. When cricket was first televised in India in the 1980s, the BCCI had to pay the state television broadcaster, Doordarshan, for the pleasure of screening home internationals. Cricket was selling itself short, but Packer was the only man to realise it.
Before exploring how broadcasting revenue is changing Test cricket, it is important to realise that the explosion in the size of the television deals (which are now by far the biggest source of revenue in cricket) has come about without any direct involvement from the sport's governing body, the ICC. The ICC behaves in the same way as the boards that compose it - and undertakes the same negotiations with television companies to ensure that it receives the greatest revenue that it can for its fixtures. Deals for World Cups with offshoots of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp have brought the ICC into the same financial orbit as the largest national boards, but it still lacks the clout to assume management of television rights deals on behalf of its members.
Owing to the liberalisation forced through by Packer, the value of broadcasting deals has grown exponentially in the past 20 years. But as the negotiations have been conducted individually between the board and the broadcasters, rather than collectively, the revenue generated has become more and more unequal between countries. This has led to Test-playing nations splitting into two camps. The differences between the haves and the have-nots are huge: the BCCI is able to pull in over US$100m a year from its domestic rights deal, which is around the same as New Zealand Cricket raises for eight years of overseas coverage. The former group is able to exert a disproportionate influence over the global schedule and the teams are investing their income in coaching staff and facilities to improve their performance. The latter group is penned in, struggling with a schedule that gives its teams fewer Tests against the elite and, therefore, less of a chance to hone their skills and improve their income; they must, as a consequence, try to win matches against teams with much greater resources.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to conceive of a situation where the national boards get together and decide that, for the future health and growth of the game, broadcasting revenue should be negotiated centrally and/or divided more equitably. The current get-what-you-can model has been in place for too long now for any new scheme to be tolerated, and the ICC is too weak to intervene. But that does not mean that the main implication of this system - a gradual slide into two-tier cricket with an ever-shrinking number of competitive teams - is guaranteed. There is a new frontier within broadcasting that could come to rival or even surpass television in the revenue that it generates. It is more flexible than TV, and the devices that it requires are already in the market. All that needs to be implemented is the infrastructure. Most excitingly of all, the way in which these rights are distributed is still to be decided. The new frontier is the internet.
Back in 2000, when the first wave of excitement about the internet was at its peak, the owner of the Chicago White Sox baseball team, Jerry Reinsdorf, met the then president of Major League Baseball, Paul Beeston, and the pair discussed their mutual concern that the internet would widen the "economic gap" between the league's bigger and smaller teams, and reduce the competitiveness of MLB. Reinsdorf and Beeston then took a proposal to the MLB commissioner, Bud Selig, asking for the creation of a centralised web portal for all of the league's teams, and that any revenue generated from it - from merchandise or watching games online - be shared equally. Selig put it to the teams, who eventually approved it. The decision was made easier by the fact that there was no guarantee that it would earn any money at all. At the time the internet seemed full of possibilities, but no one really knew what they were.
One man who had a firmer idea than most was Bob Bowman, the man whom Selig brought in to manage the project. Bowman is one of those people who is three steps ahead of everyone else and spends his time solving problems before others realise the problems exist. He had a stint at Goldman Sachs before becoming state treasurer of Michigan before he was 30. In 1990 he left to become CFO of Sheraton Hotels, before moving on up to run the chain's parent company, ITT. By 1998 he wanted a new challenge. Soon after, Selig was in touch and Major League Baseball Advanced Media (BAM) was born.
Bowman quickly saw the potential of BAM, and the importance of doing it right. He announced that BAM could generate revenue of US$600m in ten years, a hefty sum even in that age of endless optimism about the internet. As it happened, the noughties were bookended by the tech crunch of 2001 and the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Despite these shocks, BAM reached its target, only a year behind schedule.
Bowman set about his task with zeal, persuading each of the league's 30 owners to put in combined seed money of US$77m. The first couple of years were choppy. Most users were accessing the site on slow dial-up connections, and it took until mid-2002 before BAM felt confident enough in their broadcasting capabilities to dare show a game live. Nevertheless, the firm was amassing a group of paying subscribers, a rare thing at a time before paywalls and pay-per-view models. As the technology improved, both in homes and in the BAM headquarters, the subscriber base began to grow and the quality of the broadcasts improved. BAM added more cameras within the stadiums and allowed viewers to switch between them. Long before Sky+, they introduced pause, rewind and fast-forward functions. Stats and visuals could be called up at the push of a button. Watching a baseball game on MLB.com was not the same as watching it passively on television. It was more like being the director of the broadcast in the studio.
The next milestone for BAM was the launch of AtBat, its iPhone app, in 2008. (It is a measure of how quickly BAM jumps onto new technology that AtBat was launched on the same day as Apple's App Store.) Apple takes a 30% cut from sales through the App Store, so BAM had to sell a high volume to maintain profitability. As with the immediate construction of a paywall in 2001, the decision to get involved with Apple was another Bowman hunch that proved spot-on. AtBat was the highest-grossing app in the entire store in 2011. It is free to download, but access to live content costs US$15 a year for audio and US$120 a year for video. The launch of the iPad app two years later pushed the number of subscribers up further, and by 2011 the total stood at 2.2m and was growing at 25% a year, with a renewal rate of 85%. Annual revenue has long exceeded Bowman's initial target of US$600m.
More recent innovations include an app for Microsoft's Xbox, with an archive of past matches that can be viewed through your HD television, and a highlights mode that allows you to filter the type of action that you want to see, such as home runs, strike outs or catches.
For all that BAM has offered a richer, more interactive and more convenient way to watch baseball, there are still tensions. The initial concern from owners when BAM was created was that it would steal viewers away from television, compromising the league's existing rights deals, which are worth more than US$2bn a year. (A bit more than, but in the same ballpark as, the total value of all cricket rights arrangements.) The fudge is that local games are blacked out in the immediate vicinity in order to protect the size of the TV audience. So far, three teams have chosen to permit so-called in-market streaming, but audiences have remained fairly small.
Bowman told the New York Times that the effect of BAM on television has been benign: "We've learned that wherever you are, you watch on the biggest screen you can." This makes sense; you wouldn't choose to watch a game at home on your four-inch iPhone screen when you have a 60-inch television in the living room, but if you were on the train you would choose your phone or tablet over nothing at all. This is why Bowman claims that much of the revenue that BAM generates is new, rather than poached from television or from the stadiums. In 2011 for the first time the majority of BAM's traffic came from mobile devices, a fact that supports Bowman's argument.
BAM's relationship with the going-to-the-game ritual is interesting. Baseball is still a game economy rather than a broadcast economy. Unlike cricket, most of its revenue is generated around its stadiums, through tickets, merchandise, and food and drink. BAM spent time researching fan behaviour and generated a new app, called At the Ballpark. This allows fans to buy tickets to matches digitally, share their locations with other fans through social media and order food and drink to their seats. The details of purchasers stored in its online database means that it can target fans with promotions and offer loyalty discounts. So convinced is BAM of the importance of getting fans to the game that it spent US$10m installing digital kiosks at ballparks across the US.
It is here that this model begins to look seriously exciting for fans of Test cricket. A new and lucrative form of income that is spread equitably between the different nations would help the smaller teams develop the kind of resources that the big four now take for granted. If cricket's authorities borrowed the same idea to use digital media to encourage fans through the gate, it could address another of Test cricket's familiar failings: falling attendances. There is no reason to believe that the methods used to entice Americans to baseball would be any less successful in getting West Indians or South Africans to cricket, and if Test cricket shows it is capable of communicating to a younger audience through new technology, there is no reason to believe that interest will not be reciprocated.
Then there is the product itself: MLB.tv and AtBat are nice pieces of design. To flick between the myriad options within Game Day mode, where numerous live stats and tables can be picked up and put down, feels like an innovation that should be available to cricket. In the past ten years, Sky, in particular, has been innovative in bringing new technology and graphics to its cricket coverage. But the next step is to employ BAM's customisation and let viewers choose their camera angle, pull up a wagon wheel or a Hawk-Eye projection. And if any group of people would be prepared to pay for this level of anorakery, it is fans of Test cricket.
It is also clear that cricket is crying out for a centralised online archive of footage. In recent years, a hugely dedicated Australian man, Rob Moody, has built an entirely unofficial Youtube channel containing over 2000 short clips of cricket highlights. His archive is clearly filling a gap in the market: a two-and-a-half minute video of Tasmania's David Saker felling Jeff Vaughan of South Australia with a bouncer has been viewed almost two million times. Now imagine the same archive, with a slick interface, remastered content and accessible at any time on any device. It has enormous potential. Want to watch India v Australia in Kolkata in 2001 over again? Just load it up. Or Edgbaston 2005? Or all 1438 balls faced by Alastair Cook in the 2010-11 Ashes? Settle down and tuck in.
Baseball and cricket have moved in lockstep in the past century. The first baseball game to be broadcast on the radio took place in 1921. Cricket followed a year later, when Charles Bannerman's testimonial at the SCG was aired. The first Test match to be shown on television was in 1938; baseball followed 14 months later. However, baseball has left cricket behind when it comes to digital. From the UK, it is possible to watch all cricket matches shown on Sky Sports through an iPhone app, but it lacks AtBat's functionality. And the rest of the world's cricket, which is not shown by Sky? Forget it.
But there are some serious obstacles that would have to be overcome before cricket fans are able to tap the same resources as subscribers to BAM. I put the idea of a cricket AtBat to IMG's Andrew Wildblood, who doubts that digital platforms could attract new fans, and so would risk cannibalising existing television rights deals. "If you want to watch the Test match, you don't care whether you watch it on an iPhone or on television. You aren't going to suddenly become a cricket fan because of the digital offering."
BAM sees it slightly differently. It believes that the three main ways of watching baseball - at the stadium, on television and on the web - do not operate in a zero-sum environment. It argues that if fans enjoy their day out at the game, they are likely to watch more baseball at home and to buy AtBat to catch up while travelling. Similarly, if the coverage of baseball on television is interesting and innovative, fans are more likely to want to watch more ballgames, and so are more likely to take on a subscription for their phone or tablet. This is a brave stance because once you've introduced a product like AtBat, the genie won't go back in the bottle. However, the baseball teams that have taken the risk and permitted streaming of their games in their local areas, such as the New York Yankees and the San Diego Padres, have not seen their attendances fall. This suggests the zero-sum model is wrong, and that sports can attract new followers by reaching out to different demographics in different ways.
In addition to concerns about the size of the market is the fact that cricket's administrators have no track record on the kind of cooperation that would be necessary to ape the MLB, which is a single league, played in a single country, operating under a single legal jurisdiction. But even allowing for the social, cultural, political and historical differences between the cricket-playing nations, too many administrators lack the spirit of working together for the good of the game. Instead, many of the ICC's most senior administrators are political appointees, which means they often serve their paymasters at home ahead of the sport they have been picked to manage.
But perhaps the creation of an online platform for cricket streaming should fall outside of the remit of the ICC anyway. The IPL has shown how it is possible for the private sector to shake up the sport without any involvement of the governing body. And for all that BAM received the support of Bud Selig, it remains a separate entity from the league itself, with its own Manhattan address and its own profit and loss. Bowman answers not to Selig or the MLB itself, but to a board of team owners. According to a source at ESPNcricinfo, the biggest impediment to a private firm creating cricket's AtBat is that international boards charge so much for digital rights that "to monetise them is almost impossible". The high price is partly a consequence of the zero-sum mindset. If digital rights are perceived as a threat to television deals, which provide the bulk of the revenue that keeps the game afloat, boards will want to charge as high a price as possible to insulate themselves from a drop in television takings.
The failure of the BCCI to sell digital rights to home internationals in 2011 seems to bear this out. The board began by offering rights to matches at a base price of Rs 3 crore (US$600,000) each, but this proved too high to draw out an acceptable bid. It tried again, by lowering the price to Rs 2 crore, but this was also deemed too expensive. A high price could be justified if the broadcaster felt that it would recoup its outlay through revenue but, in India at least, very cheap satellite television and sluggish internet speeds mean that the market in 2013 is small. A smaller market would mean that a broadcaster would become more dependent on advertising, through banner ads and the like, which would diminish the viewing experience. These are two fairly high barriers to entry that would require a substantial initial investment and a willingness to run a potential loss until enough subscribers are attracted by the excellence of the product.
As alternatives to India, more straightforward initial markets for the launch of such a platform are those with a substantial number of high-speed broadband connections and - conceding that there will be some migration from television to digital - expensive satellite television subscriptions. The two countries that fit this model are the UK and the US. There is no live international cricket on free-to-air television in the UK, while the concept of streaming live sport over the internet and onto mobile devices is well established, owing to platforms such as the BBC iPlayer and Sky Go. The US, with its large South Asian diaspora, is in a similar position. There is potential too, in Australia. Although federal legislation insists that home internationals be shown on free-to-air television, the ongoing roll-out of the country's high-speed National Broadband Network will result in a greater engagement with digital as a way to watch sport and entertainment in the next decade.
I put the idea of a cricket version of AtBat to Giles Clarke, chairman of the ECB, and to an official at Cricket Australia, who spoke in a personal capacity and wished to remain anonymous. For such a platform to be brought to market, the involvement of the national boards would be essential as they are the holders of future rights, and of the archives of footage filmed during previous domestic internationals. Both Clarke and my contact at Cricket Australia identified the cumbersome negotiations that would be required in order to purchase the rights from each individual board as a difficult hurdle to jump. The Cricket Australia representative stressed the cooperation that would be required in bringing all the boards' rights deals into alignment so that a single buyer could scoop them up, and the likelihood that politics would intervene at some stage to wreck the deal.
Yet Clarke was enthusiastic about the existence of demand, telling me that, "Cricket punters are very similar to baseball punters. People absolutely love stats, and they love dredging up footage from the past." He was also dismissive of the idea that such a platform would weaken future television deals. "During the last hour of the Auckland Test between England and New Zealand [in March 2013, when the tourists were nine wickets down and held on for a thrilling draw to leave the series also drawn, 0-0], New Zealand television had record viewing figures. Around one-third of the population was watching. But how many more would it have been if you didn't have to be near a TV? I heard tales of 60 people round a single screen in an office. Imagine if they all had the cricket streaming on their devices."
Clarke also offered up a new idea, of signing an exclusive deal with a telecom company, such as Samsung or Apple, to stream a particular series through a single range of products. Were Apple to buy exclusive digital rights to streams of India's next trip to England in 2014, the firm wouldn't have to sell too many new iPhones in India to make a profit, and the ECB could gain a further few hundred million pounds. But this approach, which is more straightforward and more readily profitable than the centralised model, is also built on the opposite philosophy to that which has seen BAM become so successful. AtBat is available across as many phones and tablets as BAM has been able to write code for, as well as on computers and games consoles. The whole point is to make baseball accessible and to drive attendances at grounds as well as at home. Offering exclusivity to owners of particular devices would draw out greater revenue for the particular national board, but it would do little to increase the popularity of cricket in either country. Moreover, it would further widen the existing disparity between the financial resources of Test-playing nations. The ECB and the BCCI would become richer still in comparison to their equivalents in New Zealand and the West Indies. The opportunity for digital rights to restore greater competition to Test cricket would be lost.
However, the logistical ease of each country's (and the ICC's) selling their rights individually means that this remains by far the more likely path for the development of digital rights to follow. As a result, the sums that the boards will raise for their rights and the products that they will each be able to develop will be a shadow of what could be produced collectively, as BAM has demonstrated. What Test cricket needs at this juncture is its very own Bob Bowman, a tech-savvy evangelist to put an arm around each of the national boards and offer some words of encouragement that the collective model could work.
My research has led me to believe that the momentum around digital rights is starting to stir - Clarke was keen to tell me about the deal struck to broadcast the 2013 Ashes over the internet to mainland Europe - but Test cricket as a whole will only benefit if the new revenue is distributed fairly. This may never happen, but, if it is going to, the plans need to be drawn up soon.
A version of this article appears in Mike Jakeman's book on the future of the Test match, Saving the Test, which is out now