A curiosity of sports administrators everywhere over the last quarter of a century has been the apparent belief that their drive to monetise the game in every facet would pass unnoticed by everyone else. The fans, under the misguided belief that the game belonged to them were the first ones to be cast aside, as ticket prices rocketed, television coverage disappeared behind a paywall and the wider game became utterly subservient to the pursuit of manna. The English (football) Premier League was the first to make the connection, and the pathway to the present can be identified a good decade before that came into being, firstly with the removal of the gate revenue sharing model, then with the abolition of the key rule preventing owners from taking money out of the clubs. With that in place, it was merely a matter of time before it became an investment opportunity with all that entailed.
In the case of cricket, the most obvious examples were the move to Sky and the creation of T20 at a professional level (as needs constantly pointing out to those who believe it was radical, it had existed at club level for half a century), which then led on to the IPL and its assorted imitators around the world.
In the space of little more than a decade, cricket had become the new sexy for those seeking to exploit commercial advantage in a way never seen before. To some extent it was no more than the corollary of the Packer Circus in the late 1970s, but the scale and impact on the wider sport was of a new level entirely.
The last few weeks have shown indications that all of these developments have been coming to a head. The BCCI’s response to the proposal to dramatically cut their still huge proportion of ICC generated revenues was to threaten a boycott of the Champions Trophy, Australia’s cricketers are in dispute with their board over money – even if not necessarily their own – while in England the proposed TV package deals for the upcoming auction of rights have caused divergent opinion on the merits or otherwise in terms of what they might mean. But there’s a central element to all of them, namely that it is about the money. Always the money.
There is an important part to this, a central theme that cannot be ignored. That is that the moment a governing body of a sport – and note, a sport – ceases to put the sport itself as the prime, indeed only, focus for its existence, then it stops being about the sport itself. It becomes a means of creating wealth, no different to any other business. In itself, that isn’t inherently wrong or evil, but it does change the focus and the strategy and changes the rationale for the game’s existence. This isn’t a lament for the days of amateurism, but a recognition that it becomes merely another branch of the entertainment industry, with all that entails. Those who love the game for the sake of it are never going to be important any longer, their value exists solely in the financial contribution they can make to it, and if it isn’t obvious on a balance sheet, then for the purposes of future planning, they don’t exist. It is for that reason that the thousands of people in any given nation who give up their time to keep the game going are not just overlooked, they specifically don’t matter. Lip service is paid to them, but nothing more than that. When they complain that the ECB or their equivalents don’t think they matter, it’s because they’re right – they don’t matter. All that they do comes to fruition anything up to 20 years down the line and cannot be assessed financially in the here and now, and that is all that is important.
The various stories across the press are not disparate items in the world of cricket, but separate strands of the same wider topic. The dispute between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers Association has been covered in the UK from the perspective of the unlikely possibility that Australia might not have a team for the Ashes, as though that was in any way the principal issue at stake. Within the Australian media there’s much more nuance about the matters at hand, with Gideon Haigh as so often cutting to the heart of the matter. The wider issue he addresses is that conduct of CA is such that it regards the players as commodities to be given their orders by their bosses, rather than as integral to the game itself. Cricket boards have reached the point where the pursuit of money is the end in and of itself, rather than a necessary means to support and grow the game. This about face in approach is critically important, for once understood all the decisions and proposals are much more easily grasped and the reasoning behind all that they do becomes clear.
The best Australian players stand to benefit, in the short term at least, from adopting the CA proposal; their rejection stems, they say, from their concern about the levels below the highest, both amateur and professional. Even if their opposition isn’t entirely altruistic – which it may well be – they have a very strong case in objecting to the removal of a revenue sharing model. With all well paid professional sports stars, the cry goes up that they are overpaid, yet this dramatically misses the point. No one goes to a game or watches on television because of the administrators, it is entirely and totally down to the players. Every commercial deal is made on that back of that essential point, and the players deserve to paid in proportion to the money coming in. It’s not even purely the international level cricketers either, for the showcasing of their skills is on the back of those below, right the way down to someone appearing on a Sunday afternoon for their pub side. In the purest commercial terms, the players are the product, and while the value of a David Warner and an amateur club player is obviously vastly different, they still form part of the same equation. That CA don’t see it that way at all can be gleaned from the attempt to divide and rule by separating out the top players from the rest to try to force through the changes. Those leading performers deserve credit for both seeing through the ruse and refusing to solely look after their own financial interests.
Top sportsmen (and overwhelmingly, it is men) are rarely motivated by money once it reaches a certain point. The difference between coming first and second in a golf major is not a matter of money, but of pride and sporting ambition. Attempting to set one group against another when the money is already good is doomed to failure. It’s certainly not just in cricket where there is resistance, in recent times tennis players at the top level have threatened action of those below them weren’t better rewarded for their efforts.
All too often, they are criticised for greed, the question put is how much more money do they want. It’s a false equation – they deserve to be paid in proportion with how much is generated, largely by them. It’s nothing more and nothing less. Boards and owners regard them as employees to be compensated and do not see that the money does not belong to administrators, no matter how much they dislike that fact. It is also why the boards have a mentality that grassroots funding is a cost, rather than the raison d’etre for their existence. It’s why they try to minimise that outlay rather than consider it the driving motivation. As a point of principle, the Australian players need to win this argument, even if the result may not be a community one at the end of the matter.
For this is not a parochial Australian matter, the same arguments will be had around the world. The ECB are preparing their latest round of media deals for coverage and there has been much comment around the likelihood of some free to air television coverage and even some celebration that it will form part of the future arrangements. This is misplaced, even though any free access is to be welcomed in and of itself. The ECB are hoping to play Sky Sports and BT Sport off against each other to maximise the income, and have split the packages with that in mind. Almost all of the meaningful coverage will go to one or the other, since within Package One goes all the international cricket and the country cricket – such as it is in the latter case. The new T20 league goes into a separate category, doubtless with the intention of it being the consolation prize for whoever doesn’t get the first one, and necessitating a second subscription for those who wish to see it all. By splitting these the overall value is undoubtedly higher but it can’t be said to be good news for the individuals paying for access. Which of Sky or BT gets them is neither here nor there in the larger scheme of things, given the Balkanisation of sports television.
Where it gets more interesting is in the free to air packages available, offering two men’s T20 internationals, one women’s T20 international, ten men’s and eight women’s T20 league matches. On the face of it, it’s a reasonable size too, but it indicates a pure focus on the T20 side of the game for wider consumption. Partly this will be because terrestrial broadcasters have to fit sport around the rest of their schedules, and two and a half hour programmes will fit ideally in contrast to five days of Test cricket. The logic of the argument that T20 is a gateway to the game more generally can be supported by the categorisation, but equally it can be seen as regarding the shortest form of the game as the only viable one from the perspective of both free to air broadcasters and the ECB itself. This case has been made many times, most often in the misleading and specious argument that the likes of the BBC have shown no interest in Test cricket. That is true, and is because the ECB have shown no interest in the BBC, so why should they bother?
Where the free to air packages go will also be indicative of whether the ECB take the wider broadcast of the game as being in any way important. According to Nick Hoult at the Telegraph, the BBC are one potential home, but so are Discovery, via their Quest channel. There can be no doubt whatever that the BBC would offer the largest footprint for potential viewership, just as there can be no doubt whatever that Discovery would sign a larger cheque. Choosing the latter would be incontrovertible proof that money is all that matters to the ECB. No protestations about the importance of growing interest in the game could ever be believed if they still hid away the free to air broadcast on a minor channel, for make no mistake, Quest is a minor channel, one which most people won’t even be aware. The reach of the BBC is vastly greater than any alternative, including ITV, although few would complain if it went there instead. If the ECB do want people to watch cricket, the main channels are the only game in town.
Whatever the outcome of the TV bids, the same processes applying in Australia are going to come to England as well. Already players are going to miss England matches in order to play T20 tournaments elsewhere in the world, a situation that remains ever ironic given the way the ECB publicly berated and belittled Kevin Pietersen for wanting to do far less than is the now the case. Those who have bought tickets for the matches in anticipation of seeing England’s strongest team will be disappointed, and are once again ignored as being irrelevant. In England at least, it hasn’t quite reached the point it did in Australia where two separate national teams were playing at the same time, but the acceptance of the concept of the national team not representing the best available is well established, even before taking into account the ludicrous schedule that necessitates resting players.
England’s players are well remunerated in international terms, but the ECB’s focus on extracting the maximum from the game at the same time as concentrating power to themselves will undoubtedly lead to the same kind of friction seen in Australia. The gap between the international players and the county ones is vast, the difference between genuine affluence and a barely reasonable living, particularly given the short career on offer. Boards have opened the Pandora’s Box of commercialisation, and are now attempting to screw the lid back down as the realisation of what that entails begins to dawn on them. Franchise cricket in the form of the T20 league is merely the apogee of this centralised mentality. The county game will be sidelined – not in itself a disaster for the wider game were there alternate structures in place but there won’t be. For many county professionals – let alone smaller counties excluded from the party – there will be a severe chill in the air, the downgrading of both county championship and the assorted one day competitions can’t do anything but damage their livelihoods for it is impossible to imagine the revenues from the existing competitions doing anything but dropping vertically. More critically for the wider game, the same applies to Test cricket. It is hard to believe that the ECB will wish for Tests to be running alongside the latest shiny toy, for that would weaken the commercial proposition they have pushed so hard to create. In isolation, that might not be a disaster, in common with all the other tournaments worldwide, it’s severely problematic. That T20 is now the prime focus for the ECB, and for cricket more widely around the world is indisputable. The rub here is that T20, sold as the means of generating legions of new cricket fans, could have done exactly that with some wisdom.
At some point there will be a reckoning in terms of the England players too. They can earn heavily as free agents and the security of an England contract only has value for as long as they can’t do better as free agents – which would include playing for England, but not under ECB control. The top down model of enforcing both behaviour and availability works for as long as the boards run everything within their domain. Their own actions are sowing the seeds of their downfall, yet there is no real awareness that this is the case. The lack of focus on the sport for the sake of it can be seen with their treatment of the counties as an obstruction to be overcome, while even their initiatives at the lowest level are open to question. Danny’s excellent article about the All Stars Cricket initiative raises a fundamental question about their approach: While anything to encourage cricket is inherently a good thing, the usual opacity concerning how much the ECB are investing applies. ASC is a commercial venture first and foremost, and it’s hard to get away from the feeling that the clubs know better how to do this themselves, and would benefit more greatly from financial support to do so. It smacks of a PR exercise that’s more about the ECB itself than the game of cricket, the cost involved rather gives that away.
Across all sports and indeed outside of sport, there is the danger of harking back to the past and viewing it through rose tinted spectacles. School cricket was never the panacea some make it out to be, and club involvement in the modern era is vastly superior to what was on offer 30 years ago. But never has the wider game been further removed from the sharp end of the sport which has transmuted into a money making machine with no regard for outcome nor care about the game itself. The ECB remains an organisation that primarily looks after its own interests, never better demonstrated than in its structure whereby the non-professional game has no elected representation anywhere within it. Its authority is self-reinforcing, driving downwards and telling the vast majority of English cricket what to do. The much maligned FA is by contrast a model of democratic accountability, to the point that much of the criticism stems from it being an amateur organisation trying to manage the professional sport. Cricket could not be more different.
Given that, it should not be surprising that the ECB (and CA) focus is on its own success, defined by how much money it can bring in and divide up amongst its stakeholders – yes stakeholders. Not too long ago the ECB attracted derision for forgetting to include match going supporters in that list, but the truth of the matter is that this wasn’t an embarrassing oversight, it was a statement of fact. You don’t matter. You might play the game, you might go and watch the game, you might coach colts, you might umpire or do the scoring. You aren’t important and you are thoroughly and completely taken for granted. The only time it will be noticed is if the grounds are empty or if the TV deals decline in value and even then it will be a matter of looking at the symptoms rather than the cause. The only bulwark against this are the professional players, the one group in all this who might be considered to care about cricket for the sake of it. They are the only ones who might actually stand up for the game, irrespective of how many millions they might earn themselves on the back of it.
What a delicious irony.