Outspoken Seven chief executive James Warburton has backed away from a months-long campaign against Cricket Australia, stressing to advertisers that the free-to-air network "love cricket" even as they sit in the midst of an arbitration process geared at shaving a huge chunk off the rights fees due to the governing body.
Ever since reporting the network's financial results in August, Warburton has slung plenty of barbs CA's way, all with the objective of getting a reduction in the A$450 million deal signed in April 2018, of which almost 60% was paid for the rights to the Big Bash League, with the rest accounting for Test matches and women's internationals and WBBL. Foxtel paid the majority of the total A$1.18 billion figure to broadcast every ball of a home summer behind its paywall, with exclusive coverage of Australia's men's ODI and T20I fixtures.
In late August, Warburton had labelled CA "the most incompetent administration I've ever worked with", a "train wreck" and that "this is not an acceptable product and we will not support the season". On Wednesday, however, as he tried to sell the summer to advertisers, Warburton had rather changed his tune.
"One of the most talked about issues involving our company this year is our ongoing process with Cricket Australia. To be 100% clear, we love the cricket and we have a huge amount of respect for the teams and the athletes," Warburton said at the industry presentation.
"Ultimately, we pay for media rights to deliver you the quality and eye balls that best suits your needs, which is to deliver a return on your investment. We pay for and expect a first-class product and will hold Cricket Australia accountable to provide that quality this summer. Even if it means at times we are outspoken."
Seven is seeking somewhere in the order of a 20% cut to its annual rights fees - currently A$82 million in cash and free advertising paid over three instalments - for each of the remaining four seasons of the contract. CA is believed to have offered a discount for this season, affected as it has been by Covid-19, but stopped short of any further mark downs. "We'll go through the arbitration process," Warburton said. "The ICACA has all the submissions and will be in a position to nominate an expert shortly."
In September, Seven had claimed to CA that it would pay only one partial instalment of what it was contracted to pay for the entire summer, then backed down after sitting in breach of contract for more than two weeks and paying the remainder of the amount owed. CA has reserved its rights to take the matter to court, arguing that the arbitration avenue will not be binding. Warburton picked up on the current state of uncertainty about where India's tour will start as another means of keeping pressure on CA.
"We do find it surprising that three weeks before the all-conquering Indian team is due, that Cricket Australia is still [looking for a] port for them to arrive," Warburton said. "They've had the entire winter to make their plans, and the AFL and NRL have executed their seasons.
"We really hope for our viewers that they can deliver the Test series. But there must be huge pressure on NSW Health given Western Australia … and it looks like Queensland have all said no."
CA is currently in negotiations with the state governments of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia for their use as possible ports of arrival for the Indian touring squad, with a formal announcement expected within days.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig