This will be a pretty short post, I promise. By my standards.
Something has caught my eye on Twitter the past couple of days – a post from Football 365 on the so-called Sky Revolution of football in England, via the behemoth that is the Premier League:
We, in Outside Cricket land, are not going to be strangers to this argument. The fact that the game has been hidden from view on pay TV is a common thread of comment over the past four years – five if you include HDWLIA. The sheer fact that in the new deal for the Hundred (and other associated packages) that the ECB has felt compelled to put some of the sport on so-called Free-to-Air is an admission of error. The sport left that medium in 2005, and has paid dearly for it. It isn’t the only reason we are in the mess we are in with the game – envy, greed, stupidity, stubbornness, short-termism have manifested themselves in other ways over the years. But there is no doubt that keeping cricket locked away on Sky has been a real problem. They are prepared to pay the big bucks, but for how long? Viewing figures don’t seem to justify it, even for football. For instance, when Millwall played Blackburn on Sky, who outside of the fan-bases of those two clubs would have given a stuff about it? I can’t imagine viewing figures were much above 20000. Yet the deal pays the clubs quite a bit of cash. I don’t bet, so all those adverts are a total waste of time for me.
Cricket is not a visible. There’s a great part in Ali Martin’s piece last August which sums up where we are…
On the Friday before England’s defeat at Trent Bridge the BBC staged a smiley and slapstick Twenty20 match between Test Match Special and the Tailenders Podcast, with a few famous faces thrown in. Though fun, it was barely benefit-match standard. But it drew 5,000 to Derbyshire’s County Ground and, more eye-catchingly, a television audience of around 400,000 via the red button.
The BBC had similar numbers for the first TMS match in Leeds last year, too – 400k plus another 100k via the iPlayer (around as many as watched the last day of the first Ashes Test in 2015 live) – such that the comedian Miles Jupp in his speech at the Wisden dinner in April quipped about the “frightening statistic” that more people had seen him play cricket on terrestrial TV than Joe Root.
And make that Alastair Cook, who’s entire career was played behind a paywall. If you did not watch the highlights, or the Sky live coverage, Kevin Pietersen probably still has that badger haircut and bad teeth!
At the weekend the US played its most prominent sporting event, the Superbowl. Each weekend during the season a game is played live on CBS, Fox and NBC. An additional game is played on ESPN which most, not all, cable households have in the US. NFL Network also has a game, but it’s not always a top drawer and each team can only play live on it once a season. The thought the whole sport could be stuffed onto a pay TV network would be seen as ridiculous. Unless you do what MLB does, which is offer a brilliant, almost total online package for £100 for the season, and you can watch what you like when you like (with very few exceptions, and with local black-out rules for local TV).
I have heard people like Selvey moan at the likes of us for saying that the return to FTA would not be the cure-all we suggest. Well he’s sticking up more strawmen than a Wizard of Oz rehearsal in that sort of argument. It’s a bit like a smoker who has given up for a week moaning about a lung cancer diagnosis because he’s quit. The long-term damage has been done, and while packing in was a good idea, it’s not going to cure the sins of the past. The audience for cricket has moved on, while the audience for live sport has still got legs, as proved by the ratings for the Six Nations – wisely kept largely on FTA for the duration.
If there were a vision, and if there were a way, the 2019 World Cup would be on FTA. Sky should open it up to all, all the time if they give a crap about the sport, and want to keep their superior production values that everyone bangs on about (hey, didn’t Channel 4 do a really good job too?). We spoke with a journo before Christmas who asked whether we thought if England made a great run to the World Cup Final, if it would capture the nation. While we (Chris and I) both thought it would not do any harm, we were doubtful that the nation (outside of cricket fans) would care. Because they would not be able to see it. I’d love Sky to announce that if England make the semi-final, that they would broadcast their remaining games to all.
I am not a fan of the Sky Sports Cricket Channel. I’ve seen the re-run of that T20 Final and Carlos Brathwaite an inordinate amount of times. They have cut the number of countries they are taking cricket from instead of increasing them. They have endless loops of repeats. If the ECB won’t give up all the old England highlights, then they are more myopic than I give them credit for. Same with any board not wanting to give the game cheap, free publicity from the derring-do of the past. There’s not a market to watch re-runs of Lara and Tendulkar, Warne and Murali, Curtly or Hadlee? Really? Better than that Legends of Cricket stuff of nonsense.
Cricket needs all the help it can get, and while the Premier League is cited as the example of the success of Pay TV, it remains to be seen how successful that has been in terms of engagement. The playing fields near my house certainly have a lot fewer games on them than when I saw as a kid.
This is just a think-piece at this point, but it also gives me another opportunity to plug one of our great guest pieces by Andy, who took the viewing figures apart in a post two years ago. It has not aged badly for the passage of time. His conclusion is utterly relevant now we see the Hundred and its proposed TV regimen:
The ECB need to decide what they want from their cricket. Do they want Sky’s (or BT Sport’s which is another topic) pounds, or do they want to get more people watching it (live and on TV), more people talking about it and ultimately more people playing it.
They want both. Good luck with that.
We’ll be busy this week. The early part of February is always a key one for us. A few things to commemorate.