For the first time ever, the ICC is set to broadcast matches from its World Cup qualifier event. Ten of the 34 games have been earmarked, including all of the Super Six stage and the final. Still, the ICC will be asked why it is not telecasting the rest of the matches.
The interest in this qualifier is far greater than for previous editions, partly because of the participation of four Full Members - two old ones in West Indies and Zimbabwe and two new ones in Afghanistan and Ireland - in a pool of 10 teams. Only two will advance to join the eight Full Members already booked for the 2019 World Cup. With the additional presence of established Associates like Netherlands, Scotland, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and the UAE, wider interest is a given.
And given that cricket is still attempting - with however much conviction - to enter the Olympics fold, it would seem to make good sense to showcase its popularity and reach by streaming the qualifiers over a digital platform.
Obviously, right? Not so much. This will be the third qualifier of its kind the ICC has hosted, but the previous two - in 2009 and 2014 - were not broadcast. The ICC had actually streamed four matches, including the final, during the 2014 Qualifier in New Zealand.* But the viewership, it is understood, was not so strong. However, four years later, with the likes of Afghanistan climbing into to the upper echelons of international cricket and the smaller Associates aspiring to take bigger steps, the appetite to consume is bigger. So by actually committing to broadcasting ten matches from this event, the ICC Board (which is made up of the various member boards, remember) feels it has already taken a forward-looking step and, based on its success, the next qualifier in 2022 could have even more matches available for the world to see.
Though the ICC owns the production rights for its global tournaments, the digital rights are with Star Sports, which has rights till the 2023 World Cup. The ICC could stream in partnership with Star and is also aware of the advantages of streaming matches live over a digital platform.
According to one official from a prominent member board, the way the ICC's digital live streaming rights are split geographically is unique. In most territories the digital rights are owned by Hotstar, according to the official, but there are pockets where Star will not stream and where the ICC can do if it so wishes.
The ICC is capable of streaming matches and has the resources. Even during last year's women's World Cup, ten matches were broadcast live on TV. The remaining 21 were streamed live and the ICC produced content good enough for it to distribute it to different countries. Yet tournaments like the women's World Cup, the Under-19 World Cup and the World Cup qualifiers are not, ultimately, profit-making tournaments.
To stream matches for a tournament like a qualifier - with limited commercial appeal for now - is not cost-effective, especially when as many as four matches per day are scheduled during the group stages, played at four venues - two in Bulawayo and two in Harare. It is not just the cost of having the technology in place, but also the cameras, crews, commentators and graphics team.
Ultimately, all these add up to costs that the members do not want to contribute to because it cuts into the percentage of profits the ICC distributes to them from global events. The budget for organising a global event comes from the subscription money member boards pay. So if the qualifier does not generate any revenue, and the broadcaster does not want to stream the matches, the ICC has to bear the costs, which consequently will affect member revenues.
But, keeping in mind the sizeable and growing interest in smaller countries like Afghanistan and Nepal, the ICC has hired crews who will shoot 90-second clips of the matches that are not being broadcast but will be shared globally with fans.
*12.20 GMT, March 3: The article had erroneously said the 2014 World Cup Qualifier was in Scotland. This has been corrected.