Broadcast access to transmit live tournament cricket, in nations far off the beaten path of Full Member nations, used to be a major obstacle impeding the ability to grow the sport. But that may now be a thing of the past as the ICC on Wednesday announced a major agreement with IMG that will introduce web streamed broadcasts for more than 500 ICC global pathway events at men's and women's level through 2023.
These will include regional qualifiers from each of the five Associate regions - Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and East Asia-Pacific - for the next men's and women's T20 World Cups in 2022 and 2023 respectively, as well as the seven-team Men's ODI League Two and Challenge Leagues being used as qualification for the 2023 Men's World Cup.
"The objective of the program is a response to a demand not only from fans around the world but that of the members," Will Glenwright, ICC head of global development, told ESPNcricinfo in a phone interview after the ICC's announcement on Wednesday. "We do an annual survey of the members, the 2020 version of which we just completed, and getting international cricket on television was the second-highest priority that they have communicated to us. Growing awareness of the game, in the eyes of the members, is the biggest inhibitor to the growth and development of the sport.
"So this is a direct response to that demand that comes from our members and it is absolutely an awareness motive rather than a profit-driven or revenue-driven motive. Whilst it's a good financial outcome for the ICC, it's driven primarily about the need to get more international cricket and get more Associate member cricket to the fans around the world."
Over the past decade, traditionally strong Associate members such as Nepal have regularly commanded impressive viewing traffic figures thanks to broadcasts of events coordinated by local media houses. However, demand for access in recent years has spread further afield such that the regional T20 men's qualifiers were web streamed throughout the summer of 2019 from locations such as Guernsey, Malaysia and Bermuda.
The appetite for Associate content had grown exponentially in recent times. According to an ICC press release from February 2020, digital views from clips of various regional pathway events totalled more than 128 million. This culminated in the 2019 Men's T20 World Cup Qualifier in the UAE which set a record for digital consumption with an additional 80 million views for digital clips across various ICC social media and web platforms during the three-week tournament in spite of the fact that neither Nepal nor Afghanistan - another major traffic driver before their elevation to Test status - participated in the final qualifying tournament. It was enough evidence to demonstrate that a bigger effort had to be coordinated to expand the ICC's broadcasting footprint.
"We know the quality of the cricket has improved from a high-performance perspective and we know the context of the pathway events makes for compelling viewing," Glenwright said. "That, in addition to the demand that we have received from our members, the fact that lack of awareness of the game is one of the biggest barriers to growing the game for our Associate members, all pointed to us examining this properly.
"I think it's part of the digital evolution that we're undergoing as an organization, the increased capability that we've brought into our team to deliver this, has meant that for the first time we've been able to give this the attention it deserves, to point the resources in the right direction and the outcome is as we've announced today a groundbreaking partnership with a reputable organization that's going to deliver over 500 Associate member cricket matches to the world."
In the past, regional ICC events were broadcast on more of an ad hoc basis, often determined by the existing infrastructure and capability of host countries to facilitate a broadcast. That is now expected to be a thing of the past according to the new broadcast arrangement.
"The broadcasting of those events was done sporadically and often depended on the capabilities of the host member themselves," Glenwright said. "One of the criticisms that we faced from the members was that perhaps our minimum standards around that were too overbearing which made it difficult for the members to deliver and stream those events to those standards. That's something we sought to overcome by standardizing it under this agreement with IMG."
...we know the context of the pathway events makes for compelling viewing
Perhaps the most significant part of this deal is that, according to the ICC release, more than 50 countries will be featured on global broadcasts for the first time as a consequence of the new arrangement. That includes several women's teams in countries that do not currently field a men's team competitive enough to feature in the corresponding regional qualification pathway for a T20 World Cup such as the Brazil Women, who announced central contracts for 14 squad members in January 2020. The exposure that these web streams offer is something that can see new financial opportunities open up to many other countries in the same manner.
"That's not something that we take lightly at all," Glenwright said. "It opens up all sorts of opportunities for the members, not only from a performance perspective but from a commercial and a fan engagement perspective as well. In setting the minimum standards, we've been mindful of the need to ensure that all of these events can be streamed by our smaller members as easily as it can be done by our more established members who have more experience in streaming and broadcasting their events.
"Our member boards plus other sports have done some really innovative stuff, I think particularly during the pandemic around broadcasting and streaming and bringing content to fans around the world. The European Cricket League has been brilliant from a cricket perspective and initiatives like that of Finland, Japan and some of our smaller members to get their cricket streamed has encouraged us, motivated us, but more just strengthened the resolve of us as an organization to provide that exposure to all 92 of our Associate members. It is as important to our smaller members as it is to our larger members. We feel there's an obligation as an international federation to facilitate that and that's what's driven us."