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The Free-To-Air Debate

I’m sure most of us remember the summer of 2005 and watching the England team put cricket at the forefront of the country’s consciousness as the likes of Flintoff, Pietersen and Vaughan righted the wrongs of 17 years of Ashes hurt.

Lately that summer has been put under sharp focus as it was the last time a test match was played in the UK on free-to-air TV, to put it another way not one of Alastair Cook’s international runs was shown live on terrestrial TV.

In the intervening years participation figures have dropped off and over all relevance of the sport has begun to steadily dwindle year on year. So as rugby union faces a similar set of crossroads did cricket make the right decision almost two decades previously?

In a parallel universe somewhere cricket remained on channel 4 for another 14 years but I wonder what affects that would have on the sport in the UK? In the real world grounds have been refurbished and worked on in a way that a lot of Premier League football stadiums can only dream about and crucially the top international players are paid a competitive wage compared with T20 franchises.

Let’s not forget that cricket throughout the 90’s and into the new century was on the backburner in this country even though it was on free-to-air. Yes the decision to put it behind a pay wall in 2005 looked a strange one when England were parading the urn through the streets of London but 12 months earlier when the deal had actually been signed you could argue English cricket had begun to look a bit stale around the edges.

So what is the perfect balance that keeps everyone happy and the game well financed? In short there probably isn’t an easy answer to that question I’m afraid. Across social media since the free-to-air World Cup final there has been much debate about what cricket to make available for terrestrial TV in order to have the greatest impact.

I’ve seen wish lists been constructed on Twitter consisting of one test per summer, every Ashes test, ICC tournament matches and big domestic matches. You might as well finish that list with world peace and love and harmony on social media.

Just as a side note my wish list is four day test cricket (sorry) and the final day being broadcast free. Just imagine six Sundays across the summer where the sporting population can come together and watch an exciting conclusion to a test match. Anyway it’s good to dream.

In reality neither a subscription broadcaster such as Sky or a free to watch broadcaster would be happy with the arrangements being constructed on Twitter. Sky pay a premium for the monopoly of top level cricket that they show, breaking that bubble with just one test a year free to watch would dramatically hit the finances of the TV deal as Colin Grave the outgoing Chairmen of the ECB hinted at. Not to mention would the terrestrial giants have the scheduling space or finances to broadcast five day cricket?

This week Tom Harrison the Chief Executive of the ECB spoke about the need for English cricket to finds alternate sources of funding as it would be irresponsible to rely on Sky’s money for the survival of the game. Football is a good example of a sport that maximises it’s financial opportunities which in turn allows major summer tournaments and the FA Cup to be on free-to-air.  

In this article I’m not going to get into The Hundred but clearly that is one of the reasons why it’s being brought in, a successful Hundred would make the ECB less at the beck and call of pay-per-view TV. The TV market is an ever changing one with online streaming services moving the goal posts at regular intervals, what’s to say the Sky money tap could run dry within the next twenty years.

Some of you who have read my posts may think I’m on an earner with the ECB but I can assure you that isn’t the case but I do however I think they need praise for their online content this last four years.

Their YouTube page sits at currently over 3 million subscribers with the five minute highlights of the final day at Headingley at over 12 million hits. The ECB were well ahead of the Premier League in this regard who have only recently released online highlights on the platform last summer.

Maybe this is the way forward then especially considering how much time young people spend surfing YouTube which is reflected by the content that TV programmes now put on the platform. Not to mention that the channel must be a nice little earner for the ECB and should come close to paying for itself with the amount of adverts that are on their videos.

So with; ten men’s Hundred matches, eight women’s Hundred matches, two men’s T20s, one women’s T20 , England highlights on the BBC and the ECB’s YouTube content is that close to a solution? Time will tell.  

It will be interesting to see where rugby goes in the coming years, I don’t know enough about its finances to make a judgment call on what should happen but I feel that the international teams that currently play most of its rugby on the BBC or ITV have far more support than the domestic teams behind a pay wall.

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