Behind The Eight Ball

It’s hardly headline news to state that the national newspaper industry is an industry in serious decline, so it should be no surprise that one of the big beasts of cricket journalism should find out that his services (and likely hefty salary) were no longer needed by the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. Whilst I never like to hear of anyone losing their job, any tears will be tempered by the fact that Lord Selvey has no doubt received a decent pay off after 31 years of service and by the fact that he has shown himself through his various barbs on Twitter to be quite an unlikeable gentleman.

So how the situation arrived when newspapers such as the Guardian feel the need to cull their Chief Cricket Correspondent? Well the answer is a little more complicated than the fact fewer people read print anymore and fewer people take an active interest in cricket, although naturally these are actively linked; however this sharpe decline has actually been years in the making and brutally quick in it’s execution. If we go back just over 10 years ago, all this seemed a long way away. The Telegraph had a daily readership of over 900,000 and the Sunday Times had 1.6 million readers, both were making lots and lots of money through advertising (the recruitment advertising arm of the Sunday Times was making £500k a week on it’s own) and hey England had just regained the Ashes from the mighty Australia, so all was looking rosy in everyone’s garden. However if we bounce forward to the situation today, then things are certainly not looking rosy for both the national newspapers and cricket as a whole, so it is worth briefly charting the fortunes of both as without doubt cricket’s health is very dependent on the coverage that it receives the nationals.

What is clear is that the National press has been somewhat arrogant about it’s place at the top table for an awful long time. They felt that they were both the mouthpiece of the nation and the only place (alongside some TV and some Out of Home) where brands should spend their hard earned marketing money to reach their precious audience. The problem is that their arrogance made them spend a lot of their time attacking each other with faux clever marketing campaigns rather than looking at the bigger threats looming on the horizon (sounds vaguely familiar doesn’t it). If we look at things from a purely commercial point of view, all papers are absolutely reliant on advertising as their main revenue source, and from that advertising spend, print advertising is by far the most lucrative (most papers actually make a significant loss on their cover price) and hence any threat to this income makes newspaper owners sleep very poorly at night. This was where the first industry hit took place – the rise of Digital. As the industry changed and how people consumed media changed, the newspaper industry suddenly seemed to be stuck in an archaic rut with print audiences immediately starting to decline rapidly and whilst many owners put out shiny new websites fairly quickly, the money they could charge for digital advertising was a lot less than they could charge for print advertising. This was when the first cull started to happen around 2007. Things did calm down for a while as whilst the revenues they were earning previously were long gone, they still had a stable base of readers (either print or digital) and came up with new, more expensive offerings for the brands who still needed to reach their readers, which at least allowed them to stabilise their bottom lines. This was all fine up until a couple of years ago when the 2nd hit happened, the rise of programmatic advertising, and this is something that the industry has not and probably will not recover from. Automated, or programmatic buying has taken over the industry not only because it makes ad transactions more efficient but because it can make them more effective, as long as the right data is applied. Ad buyers can use programmatic buying to fan ads across the web and then, mid-campaign, evaluate what’s working best, which geographies, times of day, audience segments, publishers to narrow their target accordingly, so they’re paying only for highly effective ads. This has killed the national’s revenue line at a stroke, as all of these companies have the data they need to provide brands with the option to target a particular message to a particular audience at a particular time of day, something the nationals cannot offer and surprise, surprise their revenue has hit the floor and panic has well and truly set in. A serious bloodbath is about to occur.

So you may be wondering why I’m talking in such depth (and thanks for sticking with this) about the decline of the national newspapers on a cricket blog. Well you see all of this has been particularly bad news for our beloved journalists including many cricket journalists and for the sport itself. For many a year, cricket journalism flourished (their words, not mine) in some kind of alternative reality bubble, whereby they could post an article in print, good or bad, and then spend their time giving themselves a big pat on the back at a job well done. This was somewhat tempered when all of the posts started to appear online and various and sometimes quite derogatory BTL comments started to appear; however again many were happy to declare these people as loonies and carry on with business as usual (despite many being not, there were some fantastically knowledgeable contributors to the Guardian BTL back in 2012 before the mods moved in and many moved on). It was the advent of social media and in particular Twitter that really burst their bubble as they were now open to criticism from the masses, many of whom were both knowledgeable about the game and angry at the continued selective reporting, around the content of some of their articles. Some of the new breed were savvy enough to engage in meaningful conversations with those that questioned some of their writings, whereas some of the others, mainly the old school, decided that they would take the opportunity to shoot down any questions in as rude a way as possible. You only need to look at the childish level of language that Paul Newman used towards Tregaskis when the latter quite rightly accused the former of writing a total puff piece about Alastair Cook.

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Despite the inconvenience of having to speak directly to the masses, many of our beloved hacks have still spent their time cocooned in their own ivory tower, enjoying the hospitality of the ECB and occasionally getting to do their dirty work too; however whilst they had been cocooned away from the harsh realities of the real world, what they didn’t realize is that the power base they thought they were sitting on has gradually ebbed away. Firstly the amount of cricket correspondents was cut, then coverage of county cricket was cut to almost zero and now we’re in the situation where none of them should be sitting comfortably as even the big beasts are simply not immune to what’s going on in the real world as the sackings (or forced redundancy’s) of Selvey, Bunkers and Pringle et al clearly show. The ECB is fast starting to run out of hatchet men and who knows how safe Newman is these days. The other side of the coin is that there are a number of very good national journalists out there, again mainly from the new breed and it would be a terrible tragedy if the likes of Nick Hoult, Lawrence Booth and Ali Martin found themselves out of their jobs and stuck with writing titbits for the The Cricket Paper with it’s circulation of about 150. The signs I’m afraid though don’t look promising.

So why is this so worrying for the world of cricket? Well again, I suppose we can easily travel back to 2005 and the choices that our friends at the ECB (yes them again) have made since that time. The 2005 Ashes series was a classic and got the whole of the country behind our national team with over 8 million people watching 3rd Test of that series on channel 4. The problem for the ECB was that it didn’t fill their coffers so well, so of course they made the decision to get into bed with Sky and remove any FTA cricket except the odd highlights package from the home test (not that this is a particular criticism of Sky as on the whole their coverage is very good.) This at a stroke cut off access to the masses who had been captivated and excited by the cricket in that 2005 series (it also didn’t help that the national team then got hammered by the Aussies and then had a very lean time under the sorry stewardship of Peter Moores); however there was enough coverage within the national press to keep cricket, if not front of mind, then at least with a share of mind. However as soon as this coverage started to fade from the backs of the nationals with only 1 or 2 cricket correspondents per paper compared to a veritable army of football correspondents, then the impact that our cricketers had soon became invisible to the next generation of potential cricket fans. After all, it has been over 10 years since an England cricketer has been nominated for SPOTY, out of sight, out of mind, one may observe. This lack of coverage of the national game (the county game seems to be fairly obsolete in it’s coverage now, with either only a diehard set of supporters or those who would like to get drunk watching T20’s in certain parts of the country) coupled with the shameful behavior of our boards in the Big 3 takeover has meant that cricket is at it’s lowest ebb around the world. Overall, the decision to take all coverage away from FTA alongside the lack of coverage in the news has meant that cricket is now even more elitist than ever, the preserve of those that can afford to play (i.e. public school boys) or those that are well past their prime, have hung up their bat and are grudgingly willing to pay the exorbitant costs that Sky charge (i.e. me). Growing the game comes a distant second to a quick payday it seems.

Even more worrying is the fact that the ECB doesn’t seem to be able or want to do anything about it. The constant bickering and tinkering with the both the county and domestic T20 competitions is simply like re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, it’s simply not going to get the numbers through the door outside of London or other cricketing hotspots. Their constant leaking of information from the ECB around those that ‘aren’t from the right family’ to it’s favourite attack dog – Paul Newman or the dull and meaningless and often supervised interviews with England’s so called superstars alongside their powder puff reporting on the game’s key issues really isn’t getting anyone excited about the game I love. As for social media, there is a decent hot bed of interest from the cricketing community, yet all we have a monotonous England cricket account and no real highlights from any of the games – way to go guys, ignore the most important channel in reaching out to generation Y, Z and the millennials, that’s a brilliant strategy in attracting new followers to the game! Another tick in the Tom Harrison “achievement” column.

This might not be the most uplifting article you’ve read in terms of the health of cricket as a whole, but the comparisons with the health of their friends in the national press are at best incredibly troublesome and at worst extremely frightening and this is not something that is going to go away like it or not. The ECB (and their friends at the IOC) have a stark choice, do something radical now to get people to the game, such as a better share of revenues to invest in grass roots, showing decent highlights on YouTube or Twitter from both red and white ball cricket and bring back some FTA coverage across the board or risk the total devastation that the national press has witnessed by sticking their heads in the sand and hoping things will go away. Time is running out and I only hope that it’s not too late already, because once the horse has bolted, we’ll all be staring at the empty gate wondering where it all went wrong.

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