World Cup Matches 44 & 45: Sri Lanka vs India, Australia vs South Africa (and a bit of TV, FTA and the ICC)

And so we arrive at the end of the group stage, and more by luck than judgement, there is even a little bit to play for in the last two games. Not in terms of qualification though, after Pakistan’s always likely to be vain attempt to gatecrash the top four ended in victory, but not by enough, against Bangladesh.

Thus, it’s merely the order of the top four that is in question, and the incentive, such as it is, of who plays whom in the semi-finals. The most likely outcome is that Australia will play New Zealand at Old Trafford, and that India will play England, once again at Edgbaston. It’s probable that India and Australia would prefer to play New Zealand, both because of their recent stumbles, and also because England are unquestionably a side everyone else fears somewhat, even if they would certainly feel they can be beaten. But it’s hard to see beyond victories for both the Big Three members playing tomorrow, and that the semi-finalists includes them plus England is unsurprising, if somewhat depressing. But then, the whole structure of cricket at a global level is intended to allow them to maximise their income and power, so it is exactly as desired in the corridors of power. In most sports, an unexpected outcome in a tournament is something to be celebrated, only cricket responds by trying to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Today Sky Sports announced that if England reach the World Cup final, it will be broadcast free to air. At present it isn’t quite clear what “free to air” would mean, but it appears highly unlikely it will be via a mainstream channel with a large reach. This isn’t so surprising, there are other major sporting events on the same day, such as the men’s Wimbledon final and the British Grand Prix (another outstanding piece of scheduling for cricket), and clearing the decks for six hours of cricket at short notice is somewhat impractical, albeit it would be amusing to see the response if a main broadcaster expressed interest in doing so. What seems more likely is for it to be on something like Sky Mix, or even online via Youtube or Sky’s own app and website – the BT approach to screening the Champions League final.

Such an initiative is to be welcomed, but the focus and pressure on Sky to allow it to be shown free rather lets the ICC specifically, and the ECB more generally given this tournament isn’t in their purview, off the hook. The World Cup is behind a paywall because the policy of the ICC, as instructed by its members, was to maximise revenue in their TV contracts. The moment that was the intention, pay TV was always going to be the only outcome. The principal contract for England, India and Australia is held by Star Sports, who paid $2 billion back in 2014 for the rights to ICC tournaments up to 2023. It was for them to then sub-contract to national broadcasters and, naturally as a business, to maximise their revenue accordingly. Everything stems from that, the drive for revenue at every stage, and the reason why such tournaments not only won’t be on free to air, but effectively can’t be.

This isn’t Sky’s fault, they too are a business trying to make money, but it is the ICC’s for making the financial aspect the key one. To suggest, as some notable employees of Sky have done, that this is down to the free to air broadcasters failing to bid is a specious argument – they simply cannot financially compete on the same level as pay TV, and see little point in spending money preparing bids, or even considering preparing bids, for something they cannot win. It almost certainly is the case that the kind of wall to wall coverage required is now only in the purview of the satellite broadcasters here, but it’s still a matter of justifying the status quo by pretending that the creation of this situation is entirely separate from the bidding processes in the current market.

Where it does get more interesting is in the argument as to whether some cricket on free to air would benefit Sky themselves. This is one of those that only those inside broadcasting (we’re outside that too) can answer, but holding expensive rights to a sport in major decline cannot be a healthy financial position for them either, even if the fear in the future is that cricket sinks so far that Sky will be able to buy all the rights for a song as no one else cares. It seems unlikely this will happen for as long as there is more than one pay TV broadcaster, for cricket is a boon for them, filling lots of screen time for comparatively little cost compared to, say, drama. In any case, to say no one else cares about cricket is a weak defence. Firstly, the single positive of the Hundred, that there will be some shown on the BBC, implies otherwise to at least some extent, but more than that, if more cricket is of no interest to the terrestrial broadcasters, it’s because cricket isn’t of sufficient interest to them. But it was, at one point. And now it isn’t. For the ECB to have failed to nurture their broadcast partnerships over the last 15 years has been an abrogation of their responsibilities to the game. At another time, a World Cup the majority were unable to watch would have provoked howls of outrage. Now it is largely indifference whether they can or they can’t, and limited awareness that it’s even on.

Equally, there is the wider argument about the role of the various governing bodies. It is simply wrong to argue that all the ICC can possibly do is sell the contracts to make as much money as possible, because it isn’t what other sports do at all. Wimbledon could certainly make far more from selling off their event to the highest bidder, but refuse to because they value the exposure they get on the BBC. More pertinently, World Rugby, for their own showcase World Cup, specifically talk about finding free to air partners. Indeed, their wording is very precise:

“Securing deals with major free-to-air broadcasters who are passionate about sport is central to World Rugby’s mission to make rugby accessible in a global context. With each Rugby World Cup we are broadening the sport’s reach and appeal through a broadcast and digital strategy that is aimed at reaching, engaging and inspiring new audiences within existing and emerging rugby markets.”

This is completely alien to the approach taken by cricket, to the point that it is diametrically opposed in almost every clause in that paragraph. Very few people are so single minded as to believe that everything should be on free to air, irrespective of contract value, and given World Rugby’s activities and attitudes in other areas, it’s hardly that they can be held up as notable supporters of the common man and woman in every aspect. But it is a striking difference in strategy, to intend the widest possible audience for their blue riband event.

It is highly noticeable that Sky appear to feel they are on the defensive about this whole subject. It’s not necessarily why they’ve made the decision to offer the final conditionally free, but also how some of their staff appear to be spending considerable time messaging cricket supporters and blogs with impassioned defences of their position. It’s a different approach, certainly, and perhaps not a coordinated one, but the righteous indignation, when it isn’t even them who are bearing the brunt of the annoyance, is interesting.

What the viewing figures might be for any final, broadcast for free, with England in it will be interesting. It really isn’t just the free aspect either – buried away on a minor channel that only subscribers are aware exists is not going to cause a dramatic change, although in a perfect scenario, a very tight, exciting final might just allow word of mouth to spread, and for non-adherents of the game to seek it out.

For this is a positive, without any question. How big a positive is more debatable. If the stars were to align, then just maybe it could grab attention, even with all the competition. This is what every cricket fan surely wants.

One other small item. It’s been reported that the other counties are displeased with Warwickshire for offering guaranteed contracts with the Birmingham Phoenix franchise in an effort to lure them to the county. This is the kind of esoteric, obscure item that barely anyone notices, but has a big impact. For the Hundred franchises are meant to be entirely separate to the counties. But what did the other counties expect? That this would be adhered to? That it wasn’t really going to go down the route of concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the chosen ones? We get accused of being cynical too often, but to not see this coming is extraordinarily naive on the part of those upset by it. It’s more likely to have been a deliberate strategic approach by a governing body that has long disliked having 18 counties to deal with.

Update: the article concerning the recruitment for the Hundred has been pulled, and according to George Dobell, a retraction sought. Curioser and curioser.

Comments as ever below.