Pay Per Viewer

Television rights. The debate continues. Money or exposure. Visibility instead of viability? It’s a distance from the days BBC ruled the roost. You knew where you stood, you knew the players. But change was coming…

It was an October day in 1998, I think. October 17. Location…Ataturk Airport, Istanbul. I was boarding the Saturday morning 9am flight to London, having forced my boss to get up early so that I could get back to London in time for Millwall v Fulham (we lost 1-0, last minute goal, the ref was a bastard). So what, Dmitri? Stop rambling…

I picked up one of the daily papers on the flight and saw the news.

“BBC to lose cricket contract to Channel 4. Shock as live coverage moves to commercial channel.”

This was a seismic moment in TV coverage. BBC had held the rights since I was a child, and now, after all those years, it was moving to a commercial channel? How could they? I do remember the late Trevor Bailey getting very irate about it (he said something along the lines of people having no sense of history and being obsessed by money). There was a sense that the BBC had got very lazy, but what was to become of Richie Benaud?

Now a lot of old bollocks has been spoken about BBC coverage. About it being interrupted by the racing, or by kids programmes, or on Saturdays by every other sport. But this is of course pre-digital television for the vast majority, and the digital platforms then were in their evolutionary stage. Sky might have had three sports channels at the time, and were struggling to fill them! There wasn’t even a thought that cricket would follow football and rugby league by handing over their bread and butter exclusively live to the pay TV market.

Sky got their toe in the water  with their one exclusive test per year. This would normally be the non-Lord’s test played by the first tourists of the summer. It wasn’t a great game to get, but Sky, as is their wont, went full in and did their usual high-standard production. As we know, when the contracts for the post-2005 cricket were being awarded, Sky Sports won the bid and got the whole of the sport exclusively live in this country.

If Giles Clarke was the man to which the focus of the ire was focused post-2005, it seems the man that Trevor Bailey had in his cross-hairs was Lord McLaurin. Remember also that test matches were part of the “Crown Jewlels” of sporting rights that had to be on terrestrial TV and that the ECB, or whatever it might have been called then, were having severe constraints placed on their revenue by being forced to, in effect, deal with one partner. But McLaurin was vocal when the Sky exclusive deal was announced. Even he wasn’t thinking that far ahead.

Fast forward to now, and the one partner is Sky. We have no idea if BT Sport bid for the last round (might have been too soon), but one effect of their arrival on the sporting scene of BT was for Sky to exercise their two year option in the 2013 deal very quickly. Sky play an effective long game as the key sports rights holders in the UK, and their thinking may well be that come the new contract discussions, their inside track will be a key selling point to the ECB, and that BT Sport will really be encountering choppy waters. They’ve seen off Setanta and ESPN in the UK, and while BT have deep pockets, they might well see them off to.

The press are remarkably Sky-friendly too. Note how BT Sport, trying to bust its way into a major industry, are criticised by papers like the Daily Mail for the lack of audience for Champions League matches. What Charlie Sale and his kith and kin should be looking at is how an audience of millions for the 2005 Ashes, an outlier, but also an indication of how the sport can grip the nation, has turned into a fraction of that despite the quality production values and dedication to international cricket that Sky has shown. For Champions League football, read Sky Sports and cricket. But Sky always gets a free pass.

Looking back to the announcement in 2004, the thing that strikes me is that English cricket sold wholesale access for a 10% rise. The contract was for £220m for four years – so my maths says that is £55m per year. Even then, the ECB’s spin was appalling….

“We understand that the decision to place all live cricket coverage on satellite and cable television is an emotive issue for some people,” he continued.

“We have made an agreement that will offer the highlights package to a peaktime audience.

“Five will broadcast highlights from 7.15-8.00pm, a time which is the most popular slot for TV viewing for children and a time when an average of 21m people watch television.”

“Emotive issue for some people”. How charming. It’s sneering at you….”You get over yourself if you actually care about the long-term visibility of the sport, and if you were a non-Sky consumer, the fact you would be paying a huge amount to get to watch it”.

Stop those emotions, you people… Those “some people” getting emotive were key consumers of your sport, and yet the insults flew. Now, in hindsight, we recognise that contempt for the supporters. “Watch it on Channel 5” is the equivalent of saying “let them eat cake”. Don’t think I’ve ever watched those highlights, actually. Are they any good?

Alec Stewart sounded a warning at the time…

Former England captain Alec Stewart, speaking on Tuesday, said: “Young girls and boys should be able to see cricket without having to pay for it.

“The ECB have to look at the whole picture. They may be getting a big cheque but, long-term, English cricket will suffer.”

But it isn’t, is it? We were world number 1 test nation in 2011-12, we haven’t lost an Ashes at home. Our ODI cricket was always crap, and T20 was just a flicker at this point. Collier’s view at the time was that take the money now, and see where we go…

“The bids we accepted allow us to invest even more in the development of the England team and grass roots cricket.

“Other proposals included live coverage of some international cricket on terrestrial TV but, if accepted, they would have resulted in a significant financial shortfall for the game and it was decided that this was not in the best interest of the sport,” explained Morgan.

“This is a very good deal for cricket as it guarantees wide accessibility to watch or listen to the action and secures the future development of the game from playground to Test arena.”

We can fertilise the lawn with this.

The suspicion is that the money received from Sky didn’t filter to the grass roots as we see them. The club game is on its arse. My club was showing distress signals in 2005, with us all getting old at the same time, a couple of youngsters coming through but not prepared to commit every weekend, and clubs all around our area merging or folding. I didn’t see any of this investment come down to us. And the recreational game is important. It hands down the love of the game to people like me. I loved my club cricket. If I had kids I would have taken them with me, got them into the game, and hoped they’d be a lot better than me. At worst they’d be able to watch the sport, perhaps pay the ticket money and help fund it that way. Now my nephew will not see it on the TV, will not encounter the game in any way, and if was interested, it’s a struggle to find a way in. He’s very young, but I’d picked up a cricket bat at that age.

The money has funded better facilities and rewards for the top players. Of that there is no doubt. I’m not sure how the wages of county cricketers were affected, and I’m not about to go on a raid on Google to find out how they might have, but when I was talking with a fellow member of Surrey a few years back, the salaries I was hearing were astounding. Over £100k for a county player while the attendance at the fixtures wouldn’t cover the costs (because there was  more than one of those paid players on the staff). So I’m assuming the funds from the Sky contract paid for that (and thus the counties supported the moves to exclusivity). There really didn’t appear to be much long-term about it. It was to trouser more cash to pay everyone involved in the game. Once hooked on the drug of money, it’s pretty tough to get off. Anyone want a precedent in history for this, look at what happened to football below the Premier League when ON Digital went bust. Ask our current Premier League champions what happened to them?

A clue in the raising of the wages of cricketers in the last few years can be gleaned, very roughly, from the cost of sales/ other operating expenses part of the ECB accounts. In 2006, cost of sales was £6.2m and operating expenses were £64.7m. In 2014 those numbers increased to £18.9m cost of sales and £128m operating expenses. Now, this period covers the global economic downturn and the lack of pay rises for many people out there. I can’t delve deeper into those figures because the accounts are pretty opaque, but there is always a spike in years with the Indians touring England (2011 and 2014 in particular) but the trend is up across the piece. There seems little doubt that the players share of the pot has increased. As with football, your subs fund their wages. It’s little wonder that they took the largest pot. Wouldn’t you? You’d really turn down large sums of cash for the future of the game? Bet you wouldn’t.

Now, don’t get me started on Giles Clarke and his vision for the sport. The vision was to increase salaries. The vision was to get money for counties to pay more salaries and perhaps make them sustainable. The counties are the lifeblood of players coming through the ranks as well as, in a number of cases, the parasites sucking the coffers dry. Where you stand on that is your own choice, your own evaluation. I don’t know enough about how this works, and I’m damn well sure we’re not told enough either.

So you have a number of important issues to consider. If you do offer cricket “free-to-air” (and as AB points out, correctly, it isn’t. You still pay a licence fee) then Sky may well drop the value of their bid based on their exclusivity premium. The BT Sport angle is interesting, but we are still a year away from the bidding and while they’ve snatched the overseas Ashes from Sky, it’s probably not going to be followed up by a bid for home international cricket, which is hardly value for money. BT still come across as cheap and cheerful.  If I were them I would not be bidding the current levels that Sky do.

If Sky bid against themselves, then why up the ante too much?. Here’s where Harrison has to earn his corn. Mr TV Rights has to persuade a sole bidder that someone else is interested, while also trying to hawk a T20 match or ten to a free-to-air channel (so far unknown) for a competition that hasn’t been created yet (a franchise one) while keeping the players in the manner to which they have become accustomed, and justify what looks like his £300k plus salary. Good luck Tom.

Commentators protest that the lack of free to air access has meant stars like Joe Root don’t get the recognition they deserve. Great. No argument there. So what are you thinking is the solution? All I’ve seen is a franchise competition with a few games of T20 cricket on free-to-air. Is that really going to work? I’d say the most famous cricketer who has played in England this decade remains Kevin Pietersen. I’d wager Andrew Flintoff gets recognised more than Joe Root. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t secrete a sport on pay per view, that isn’t football, and then expect it to grow. It has to have terrestrial presence (for want of a better word) but that comes at a cost. A cost this short-sighted generation of administration will not countenance.  Joe Root may not get a SPOTY nomination but he’s getting double the salary he would have done without Sky money. Which would you prefer?

Comparisons with other sports are not helpful. AB and I have been having a discussion regarding baseball. One would think it’s a good thing to compare with, but is it really? The focus on cricket for revenue purposes is international fixtures. They get all the good players, they get the crowds, they get the interest. MLB doesn’t have that. The World Baseball Classic isn’t taken seriously in the US. The turnover figures do not compare. AB cited $9bn for a season. A team plays 81 home games, minimum, will have a local TV station rights award (some even own those channels and coin all the revenues for themselves) for the vast majority of all their games, and there is some national coverage on Fox (on Saturdays) and ESPN (a couple of nights in the week and Sunday Night Baseball). A Superstation (TBS) which is available on cable packages throughout the US also has a live game on Sunday afternoons. Then you have the play-offs (postseason) and the World Series. The ballparks vary in size, with some over 50000 in capacity. Revenue from executive boxes and prime location seats are enormous. For a county membership of £150, I’d be hard pressed to sit behind home plate in many ballparks, and certainly the top teams, for one game! Attendances are not even comparable with our international fixtures! Sure, a lot of games don’t get a lot in, but at home to the Red Sox, the Yankees et al on a Friday night? Good luck! I went to see Boston play Pittsburgh a few years ago in PNC Park. It was their record attendance at the time. Two middling teams on a Sunday afternoon.

Cricket in England isn’t in baseball’s league. But the principles are. The sport is cared for like cricket – an anachronism in a fast moving world. It needs the older generation to nurture it for the young. There are concerns that the black community, the US black community, is decreasing in its representation. The World Series doesn’t have the buzz it used to. It does make sure its stars are known. It does show them on major networks, accessible by very many people. It doesn’t just resort to a Twitter feed or a silly #propercricket hashtag. It has a savvy social media platform. It has a wonderful website allowing you to stream nearly every game. We have a couple of counties with fixed cameras showing some action and Sky/ECB start whingeing that it’s scaring the horses. What the serious fuck is going on here? Do they want to stop any innovation?

In my opinion Sky Sports cricket coverage is brilliant from a production perspective and borderline awful on a commentary one. Atherton is fine, but I’m not as high on him as many. Hussain has gone to pot. Lloyd is the court jester, but that act is wearing on me. Shane Warne needs to do one. Michael Holding has been there too long, and I’m not too sure he should be sticking around long, and then there is Ian Botham. You know what I think. Gower as link man is a travesty – Ian Ward should be suing for some sort of age discrimination on grounds of relative youth. Nick Knight in the wings fills no-one with pleasure. This isn’t a national treasure needing saving. It’s sporting coverage needing some bloody new faces. Good ones. Robert Key. Mark Butcher.

But none of that really matters. What matters is growing the sport the decision to take the money and cut the exposure damaged. Perhaps permanently. I don’t see any solution. Who is going to watch a franchise T20 competition if there are many who don’t know the players? Who is going to bid for this for decent sums of money? How will they cope with Sky’s need for exclusivity? Will they even get the same money next time around?

Loads of questions, nearly 3000 words, and no answers. That’s blogging.

Update – As if on cue, check out this load of old absolute stupidity, and the senselessness of having no digital foresight, as explained by Nick Hoult in the Telegraph…

Several counties have been circulating footage of championship action on their social media pages and Nottinghamshire even streamed a match live on their club website when they played Surrey at the start of the season, although this is permitted under the ECB deal with Sky.

Many clubs see it as a vital way of marketing the county championship which struggles to attract crowds and has proved popular. 

But the ECB this week emailed all the counties reminding them they are not allowed to stream “as live” content online because it contravenes their exclusive broadcast deal with Sky Sports which is in place until 2019.

Talks are ongoing with Sky to try and hammer out a deal which will allow the counties more freedom to show county action online but until then they have asked the clubs to stop breaking the contract.

An email from Rob Calder, the ECB’s head of marketing, was sent to county chief executives this week outlining the rules agreed with Sky, which will show its first county action of the summer next week when it screens live coverage of the match between Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire at Trent Bridge from Saturday.

Under the current deal counties are allowed to show highlights lasting five minutes filmed two fixed cameras at either end of the ground. If Sky are covering that match counties are allowed not allowed to screen highlights until 12 noon the following day. If Sky are covering a different match a county is allowed to put highlights of their game up online an hour after play.

But sharing on social media is not allowed until Sky and the ECB come to a compromise although counties sources have told Telegraph Sport they will defy the ban. 

Honestly. I’ll let you comment. You know what I think.