Australia's cricketers have taken control of their own brand, in a further deepening of their divide with Cricket Australia (CA) as the June 30 expiry of their current pay deal looms ever closer. The Australian Cricketers Association (ACA), the players' body bargaining on their behalf, has set up a company through which to sell the intellectual property rights of players.
In a move cribbed from American sports, The Cricketers' Brand will be responsible for players' commercial deals with sponsors and also access to them for broadcasters and other media. The plan will also serve to bankroll the ACA, after CA last year indicated it was no longer comfortable funding the players' body (which it does through an annual grant in exchange for intellectual property rights).
The ACA is in the final stages of signing all CA-contracted players to the new entity, which will commence operations from July 1. In that same moment, CA will be in breach of its existing commercial contracts for players; in effect, The Cricketers' Brand will then take over from CA as the lead authority on players' collective commercial deals. In the event of an MOU deal being reached by the deadline, the new company's activities would be limited to various licencing deals, with other intellectual property to be returned to CA.
"A player can still do [deals] with their agent," ACA chief executive Alistair Nicholson said. "But if there's a group that wants a group of players who have different agents, this is just a way it can be co-ordinated better. In the current negotiation the ACA's funding ends June 30, so there's a potential source of funding there for the ACA with the players to support that.
"The funding of the ACA has some commercial element. There's some membership fees, a contribution from the player group and then CA, at a similar level to the players, pay the ACA not to be involved in the commercial market. The position from CA until now has been that they don't believe that funding from them should continue, so now it's important if that doesn't continue then we've got structures in place where we can fund ourselves."
While Nicholson spoke optimistically about reaching a point of commonality with CA by the end of next month, the formation of a new commercial entity - to be managed by the former NSW batsman Tim Cruickshank - is further evidence of preparation for a long dispute. It follows the ACA's announcement last week of a financial contingency fund for vulnerable players.
"When players are threatened with unemployment and when they learn they receive 0% of the digital revenue they generate they are naturally concerned," Nicholson said. "The Cricketers' Brand has been established to better manage these concerns and those of all affected parties.
A CA spokesman maintained the board's view that negotiations had not yet begun. "Cricket Australia remains ready and willing to begin negotiations and remains confident that an agreement can be reached once they begin," he said. "The only reason that these talks have not begun is because the ACA is insisting that certain pre-conditions be met. That goes against the basic principle of good-faith negotiations, and could not be used in any mediation.
"CA has repeatedly explained to the ACA that there is no digital revenue, and their auditors have access to CA's books on a regular basis."
The ACA's standoff with CA has generated considerable disquiet among Australian sponsors and broadcasters, particularly around promotional plans for the Ashes this summer.
"We're getting inquiries from broadcasters and sponsors around what happens, so we thought it would be important to say there is a vehicle here if you want to come and speak to the ACA around accessing players," Nicholson said.
"This is about getting the commercial structures around that. This is not saying the commercial demand will come straight away, it's just about getting the right structure around that. It (the company) will be able to continue on [during next MOU], but if there are opportunities out there in regard to the players' IP, we've got something set up to support that."
A former AFL defender for the Melbourne Demons, Nicholson pointed out that while Australian football's deal with the players' association permits a roll-over of the existing agreement in the event of an impasse, CA's insistence that a deal must be done by the end of June meant that the players were compelled to make alternative plans.
"In regard to our situation the landscape's different, in that our MOU finishes and there's no roll on. Then we've got a majority of the players out of contract. So that's why we're pushing in regard to calls for mediation, support fund and putting this company in place.
"I'm sure there's common ground that can be found, but we think due to the timing and the difference with say AFL, that's why we called for that [mediation]. We'll wait and see, and I'll update the players as best I can, as soon as I can."