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Channel Seven dispute with Cricket Australia escalates towards crisis point

The broadcaster is threatening to pull out of its deal due to anger at the proposed schedule for the summer

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
So close! Mitchell Starc reacts to his hat-trick ball, Australia v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Adelaide, December 1, 2019

So close! Mitchell Starc reacts to his hat-trick ball  •  Getty Images and Cricket Australia

Refusing to blink in the face of increasingly fevered threats from Channel Seven, Cricket Australia's leaders will wait to see whether the free-to-air network's next broadcast rights instalment lands in its bank account on Tuesday before weighing up the true state of its A$1.18 billion deal signed with Seven and Foxtel in 2018.
Seven and Foxtel are due to pay about A$50 million on Tuesday ahead of the season, while the former's commitments to broadcast international cricket in Australia begin with a series between the Australian and New Zealand women's teams in Brisbane from September 26 - the first top-level cricket in the country since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Operational planning between the governing body and the broadcaster have continued throughout the dispute over the past month.
There were reports that the battle between Seven and CA had reached crisis point on Friday after the free-to-air broadcaster issued a notice to CA on Wednesday that they were in breach of their contract due to the nature of schedule proposed for the upcoming season. This was characterised as the start of a process for Seven to back out of their A$450 million deal entirely, after the debt-ridden network had been asking for a discount to its rights fee for most of the year, citing a range of issues.
These have varied from a likely loss of content due to Covid-19, then a complaint that the quality of content would not be high enough, and most recently an accusation that CA had unreasonably delayed the start of Seven's share of the international season by acceding to India's request to play white-ball matches - exclusive to Fox Sports - before the start of the Test series broadcast by both networks, rather than after it.
In all cases, CA is believed to be comfortable with the legal strength of its contract with Seven, should the dispute escalate to a court battle at the outset of the season.
A greater issue would appear to be Seven's capacity to pay its dues over the remainder of the deal, with its share price diving as a mounting pile of debts creep closer to maturing next year. In a statement on Friday, a CA spokesman said: "Cricket Australia remains in ongoing discussions with the Seven Network about delivering a compelling summer of cricket. CA is committed to fulfilling its contractual obligations to all its partners this season."
CA's chairman Earl Eddings had on Wednesday discussed the matter with state chairs during the latest meeting of the Australian Cricket Council, where the head of commercial Stephanie Beltrame also updated the group. There is understood to have been a unified view that CA should seek to uphold its contract with Seven.
The proposed fixture list now has the international season starting with white-ball cricket against India - which fellow broadcaster Fox Sports has the exclusive rights to - after the players have quarantined following the IPL, followed by four Tests from mid-December. The Afghanistan Test, which is slated for Perth and would be part of Seven's package, may be under threat due to the Western Australian government's hard stance on quarantine rules.
Last month the Seven CEO James Warburton began the broadcaster's attack by outlining his frustrations when reporting the network's underwhelming financial results. "It's been frustrating with Cricket Australia, that's for sure," he said on August 25. "Ultimately, when you look at the season, like the AFL and to an extent the NRL, they need to look at what is possible to deliver, stop talking about international borders being closed, or borders being closed, and start to look at what really is the season we are going to deliver.
"You have got the Australian T20 and one-day captain saying one thing, you have got the coach saying another, you have got BBL franchises talking about no international players - or [having more] grade cricketers. We could send the cameras down for free to telecast grade cricket. We have paid a huge price for the rights and we need to understand very quickly what the season is."
Warburton was later to label CA a "train wreck" for the way they have gone about putting the season together. He was particularly scathing about the potential of the BBL losing extra star names due to their needing to be larger international squads because of travel restrictions, although it's understood that CA are confident that a case against quality can't be made by the broadcaster. There is also a view that Seven's stance on the tournament missing a vast number of players has been overstated while there has been talk of allowing extra overseas names to be signed.
"On the field, if I bring it back to the BBL, there's a lot of commentary and speculation around who will and won't play in the BBL, but one of the best features of the BBL is the surprise and delight element, you never quite know who is going to step up," Anthony Everard, Cricket Australia's head of fan engagement and one the original people behind the BBL, told ESPNcricinfo.
"Whether that be Jofra Archer a few years ago at the Hurricanes, or in more recent times Josh Philippe and Riley Meredith are in the Australian squad now off the back of their BBL performances. I'm really excited about who is going to seize the opportunity to have their breakout year in the BBL."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig