Australia's first day of Test cricket on the new broadcasters, Seven and Fox Sports, was unable to break a wider trend of falling television audience numbers, recording a combined average of fewer than 1 million viewers nationally at peak time in the final session.
In April, the two networks shelled out a combined A$1.18 billion to Cricket Australia for the broadcast rights over five years, based in part on the concept that live sport remains one of the few broad-based audience drivers for television. At the same time, the deal contained a sizeable digital component, for streaming rights to Foxtel through their new Kayo app and other existing platforms, but it remains unclear exactly how large that audience is.
A move to two parallel broadcasts for Test cricket has been an enormously complicated exercise for CA, Fox Sports and Seven, based largely around the hope that a rising tide of coverage would lift all boats, whether free-to-air or on pay TV. The early signs from day one were that the combined audience would be no larger than that enjoyed exclusively by the Nine Network - typically around the 1 million mark in recent times - for the previous 40 years, with the creep away from traditional television broadcasts to streaming and other forms of entertainment continuing.
Seven's coverage was watched by an average 454,000 viewers nationally in the morning session, rising to 588,000 in the afternoon and peaking at 773,000 in the evening session leading into the national news. Fox Sports, meanwhile, returned an average of 137,000 before lunch, 162,000 in the afternoon and 214,000 in the evening. The combined average figure for the final session was thus 987,000.
While comparisons with past broadcasts are affected by the aforementioned move away from television to digital entertainment, these figures ran reasonably close to the equivalent match last summer, the first Test of the Ashes in Brisbane in late November, and the corresponding Test four years ago when Australia played India in Adelaide after the match was rescheduled due to the death of Phillip Hughes. The 2017 third session average for the Gabba Test was 1.361 million.
There is a far more significant drop-off, however, if the figures are measured in terms of the five city metropolitan audiences so often quoted by television networks and advertisers alike. According to OzTam figures, the comparison for evening session audiences in 2014, 2017 and 2018 show a major decline, from 874,000 four years ago, to 823,000 last year and a mere 544,000 on Thursday. Changes in metropolitan viewing habits have meant that regional audiences are now propping up overall numbers more significantly than in the past.
Seven and Fox Sports were eager to push the "reach" figures tabulated from day one, which are based on the number of people tuning in for at least five minutes across the day, and their enthusiasm was echoed by the CA chief executive Kevin Roberts. "It was moving from the talk off the field to the action on the field and it just saw how cricket is just a positive and uniting force," he told SEN Radio.
"We reached 3.4 million Australians yesterday. The numbers are still being put together, but we do know we reached 3.4 million Australians through the day. The third session went particularly well. I'm sure there were many, many Indians tuning in in different parts of the world as well. I'm just really happy for the players. They deserved the success they had yesterday. It was a brilliant day of Test cricket. Walking that tight rope in recent times, how hard do they go? Our goal is always to win, but our expectation is that we compete with respect. The way they played made me feel proud."
What is not in doubt is that a day Test in Adelaide draws fewer spectators and eyeballs than the day-night fixtures played over each of the past three seasons. Roberts indicated that he was keen to ensure that, in future, the match returned to a floodlit form.
"It was actually the second highest crowd we've had for a day one Test against India at the Adelaide Oval," Roberts said of a day one attendance of 23,802. "What we saw was many of those 24,000 yesterday sitting in the shade which meant the stands on the eastern side were quite empty. No doubt we'll see a far bigger crowd on the weekend. We think we would've had 15,000 or so interstate visitors if it was a day-night Test so there's no doubting we've lost that group of fans.
"You look at the way fans have embraced it. It matters what the fans think and they've voted with their feet. Those numbers are incredible so we're really excited about getting back to that in the future. Part of that fabric of cricket both nationally and internationally is so rich so we embrace the fact that they've had a different view about this Test match. We hope that the sentiment from fans is something India can see."
Adelaide's crowd on Friday grew to 25,693 in somewhat less hostile weather conditions. CA and broadcasters alike will hope that the television audience follows a similar upward trend.