From the summer of 2006, not a single ball of live Test cricket will be available to viewers on free-to-air terrestrial television, for the first time in 60 years. This loss of mass exposure will without doubt have unfortunate consequences for promoting cricket amongst young and less devoted followers. The ECB decided to trade coverage for cash on the basis that this would not be for ever, and that when the next deal starts in 2010, cricket could again be widely available. This misunderstands the nature of the broadcasting world.
When the ECB explained its reasoning - and in particular Channel 4's inability to match the four-year package of £220m primarily generated by BSkyB - a number of commentators condemned Channel 4 for its failure to commit itself to cricket. What they failed to appreciate was the unique difficulty of scheduling cricket in the heart of a mainstream TV channel that makes its living from selling commercials.
Cricket is a scheduler's nightmare. It takes up a huge amount of airtime, during most of which - to the uninitiated - not a great deal happens. It alienates large sections of the potential audience, especially women. Its finish time depends on the over-rate and is therefore unpredictable, which collides with the first rule of scheduling: always transmit your key early-evening shows at predictable times. In a competitive broadcasting environment, the early evening is critical to building audiences for the rest of the night. If two million switch on at 6 p.m. to watch The Simpsons, only to find an unknown Sri Lankan batsman playing for the close, they are unlikely to hang around. That is disastrous for the channel's revenue.
On top of that, there are the hours to fill when poor weather prevents play: the cricket lover isn't interested in time-fillers, and the non-believer thinks the cricket is on. So the channel loses twice over. Channel 4 can't even make do with old movies because it has a strict quota of original programming which would be severely compromised.
All these uncertainties have a cost, which in Channel 4's case is measurable. At its best, when England are doing well and a match is well poised, the channel can break even. At its worst, it loses money. Its original highlights package at 7.30 was drawing an average of 700,000 viewers instead of the usual 1.5 million. Sport is not part of its public service remit, which is defined by law and strictly monitored by the industry regulator Ofcom. None of this diminished the enthusiasm with which Channel 4 embraced the game. To almost universal acclaim, it revolutionised coverage and demonstrated vividly how lazy and unimaginative the BBC's approach had become. From Hawkeye to regular and concise explanations of some of the more eccentric Laws, it made the game accessible and fun to watch.
It also demonstrated its commitment off the air. Part of the ECB's rationale in 1998, when it dumped the BBC, was that Channel 4 could exploit its trendy image to appeal to a new, younger and multicultural audience. And indeed the station has invested money in inner-city cricket programmes, teaching packs for schools, a community cricket ground in Lambeth, and themed cultural events encouraging ethnic Indian and West Indian communities to participate. It has kept its side of the bargain. But over the next five years, the commercial environment will become much tougher. C4's new chief executive, Andy Duncan, has projected a funding gap of over £100m by 2012 and is already appealing to government for some kind of public subsidy for the first time in the channel's history. Against that kind of background, Channel 4 could hardly be blamed for not matching BSkyB's offer.
Unfortunately, the ECB doesn't seem to understand how difficult it will be to re-establish contact with terrestrial television. ITV's complete indifference to cricket - compared to rugby union, motor racing or European soccer - is one measure of the sport's lack of commercial viability. Channel Five may have committed itself to a highlights package at 7.15, but against Coronation Street, EastEnders and Emmerdale it will be lucky to attract an audience of half a million. Five certainly won't touch ball-by-ball coverage.
Second, the BBC has existing obligations to sports which have stayed loyal or returned to it. Wimbledon tennis, rugby union, the FA Cup and football highlights all have a place in the BBC's sports pantheon. Once a sport takes itself off to a competitor, the BBC can't be expected to wait patiently in the wings for a change of mind; its sports resources and personnel will have been diverted elsewhere.
Third, schedules need to be filled. As Test Match Special producer Peter Baxter put it, "the problem with moving a sport off a mainstream channel is that the hole closes over". Commitments are made not just to other sports but to other programming areas, often with long lead times. Something in the current schedule - which will probably have built its own loyal audience - would have to make way, particularly for such a huge chunk of television time as Test cricket consumes.
Meanwhile, BSkyB has a very different agenda. With three dedicated sports channels, there is no shortage of airtime, and subscribers who are willing and able to pay upwards of £400 per year will see full coverage. More importantly, it is live and exclusive sport which drives the BSkyB business. After years of facing very little competition in the multichannel world, it is now finding life more difficult against Freeview, the BBC's digital offering which requires only a set-top box and no monthly subscription - but offers a much smaller range of channels. Sky's monthly rate of signing up new households has been declining and the number of Freeview homes accelerating. Exclusive Test cricket is a valuable carrot to persuade an additional tranche of otherwise reluctant subscribers to join the BSkyB club and boost its subscription base.
This won't detract from the proven quality of Sky's coverage. But for Sky, as with all its exclusive sports, cricket is a commodity which it will want to buy as cheaply as possible next time around. And when the ECB starts looking in 2009 for competing bids from mainstream channels, it will be lucky to find any other potential takers for a sport which makes such enormous and unpredictable demands on airtime. Sky knows when it has a free run, and will be bidding accordingly - and the pot of gold which the ECB discovered this time round could prove to be a very short-lived cash bonanza.
There is one potential game-saving approach, which would depend on the government intervening to do what the ECB hasn't done and recognise the national significance of the game. Until 1998 home Test matches were among ten "listed events", the crown jewels of sport which were judged to be of such cultural value to the nation that live rights could not be sold exclusively to a non-terrestrial broadcaster. After intense lobbying from the ECB - and a much-touted "gentleman's agreement" between the board chairman Lord MacLaurin and the cabinet minister in charge of sport, culture secretary Chris Smith, that the game would not disappear from mainstream television - home Test matches were removed from the "A" list of protected events.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality of commercial life does not allow for agreements between gentlemen. So it is worth remembering the words of Chris Smith in June 1998 when he acceded to the request: "This is something for which the ECB and county cricket clubs have specifically asked. I expect to see their freedom used responsibly, with continued access for all viewers to a substantial proportion of live Test coverage. If those expectations are not fulfilled then I may, of course, need to review the listed criteria again." Both Smith and MacLaurin have gone now, but it may be time for the government to act on Smith's threat.
The English Rugby Football Union recognised its mistake in selling its Six Nations matches at Twickenham to BSkyB when live audiences allegedly plummeted to a tenth of their BBC1 size. The RFU understood the potential damage that was being done to maintaining a healthy grassroots interest in the sport, and reversed their decision. A rugby match is about one twenty-fifth the length of a Test match so the BBC could easily accommodate them. The same will not be true for cricket in 2009.
The current culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, is expected to move on after this year's general election. This may not be a great political issue, but cricket fans could certainly make their feelings known to the post-election guardian of the nation's cultural heritage. If cricket's governing body cannot be trusted to look after the best interests of our national game, some intense lobbying to have home Tests relisted might help the ECB recognise the dangers of its short-term thinking.
Steven Barnett is professor of communications at the University of Westminster. His books include Games and Sets, an analysis of sport on television.