THE ‘crown jewels’ debate seemed to head against the terrestrial lobby in February, and pressure has grown to keep Test cricket off the A list of events reserved for terrestrial television in the public interest. But the pro-listing MCC have already questioned the ECB’s gung-ho attitude to this issue, an insight into their strained relationship.
At a presentation in July 2009 to the panel chaired by David Davies the MCC, always independent of ECB central funding, showed more than a hint of hostility to cricket’s governing body in the submission by chief executive Keith Bradshaw and lawyer Peter Leaver.
The MCC reckoned greater flexibility was required by the ECB in reaching broadcasting deals and more research was needed before forming policy. And surprisingly the MCC, self-funding owners of Lord’s, disclosed they were prevented by the ECB from holding their own money-making matches. For example, no profit was allowed from the twenty20 match between Middlesex and the 2009 IPL champions Rajasthan Royals, which attracted a 22,000 crowd.
The MCC said to the Davies panel: “The match was broadcast live to India and accidentally so here in the UK because the ECB had not read the paperwork. Such matches are for the good of the game, but generally the ECB’s approach under the Staging Agreement is to make things as hard as possible. Games must be for charity and use ECB approved broadcasters.”
Not enough research, the MCC implied, had been done by the ECB into the advantages or otherwise of terrestrial coverage and the effect on youth cricketers. “To understand which business model works best for cricket one would need to undertake a comparative study of Australia – with free-to-air cricket — and coaching schemes and of England – with no free-to-air cricket — and coaching.”
Other points made by the MCC for the Davies Report included concerns that satellite television was too expensive and that cricket awareness was being damaged.
>Access to Test match cricket on free-to-air television greatly exercised MCC members, who were particularly worried that people – and young people in particular – were missing out because they could not, as opposed to would not, pay for premium sports channels.
>MCC concerns had been confirmed by an e-mail exchange with a cricket coaching school. Because of the way in which cricket is played in schools, youngsters coming to coaching schemes didn’t know that two batsmen played were at the wicket at the same time because they had never seen a real game of cricket.
>The MCC had therefore set up a Working Party to look at the issue. As a result the MCC discussed with the ECB a number of possibilities that would have increased the 27 packages on offer to broadcasters to incorporate a degree of free-to-air coverage of Test match, one-day and T20 cricket. But the ECB still proceeded on the basis of the same 27 packages in selling the rights last time round.
>The MCC stressed it had no animus against Sky, which had done a great job in broadcasting cricket. Its concern was the ECB’s broadcast rights policy and the question of access, and its view was that the ECB had not achieved the right balance between exposure and commercial exploitation.
>The MCC also had concerns about the impact of the way in which the ECB spends its commercial revenue. The MCC, which does not have a county cricket team, does not share in the broadcasting revenues. It therefore has to cover the costs of Lords Test matches from earned income. This means that ticket prices rise and fewer people see cricket either at Lord’s itself or on TV.
>The Home Ashes series is always an event of national resonance. Series against South Africa, India and Pakistan are important, but do not have that iconic status.
>The MCC believed that terrestrial broadcasters would still be interested if the price was right, especially as there was a greater number of channels that overcame traditional scheduling difficulties.
>The MCC did not dispute the ECB’s participation figures, but did not think that the growth was down to the ECB alone. The MCC and others did an awful lot to increase children’s participation.
>Highlights appeared not to be an adequate substitute for live coverage. They worked for football, but not for cricket.
>Overall the MCC’s key message was that greater flexibility was needed when the ECB put together broadcast rights packages so that some cricket remained available on free-to-air television.
CHANNEL 4 FELT ‘LET DOWN’ BY THE ECB
Channel 4 representatives declared themselves in favour of the ‘crown jewels’ and made the point that it was for the longer-term interest of sport and and was good for viewers too. They broadcast Test cricket for four years to the end of 2005, the renowned Ashes series, but ended their association because the experience had not been financially viable and they could not match Sky on price..
They said: “Securing the rights to England’s home Test matches had been a piece of pure counter-intuitive C4 opportunism. It had never been a commercially driven decision, but it livened up summer schedules.
And in the case of series involving the West Indies, India and Pakistan, C4 would also mesh with a wider multi-cultural offering, which served its wider public service broadcasting remit and brought in new audiences. The juxtaposition of cricket and Big Brother had also been commercially very valuable to C4.
Channel 4 added: “C4 was glad to have done it, and tried to share the 2006-09 rights with Sky, but the ECB went with Sky. C4 did not bid for the current rights. There was no doubt however that cricket was now much less in the public consciousness. C4 felt a little let down by the ECB as it did a lot for cricket. They were not precious about that, but the ECB went for the money because of the need to support a financially ailing county cricket structure.
“Digital switchover might increase the number of qualifying free-to-air channels theoretically able to bid for listed events but they would be small and have small budgets. The greater value was probably in having the additional scope to schedule live events away from the main channels for example, on BBC3 and BBC4.”