With the recent announcement of the ECB’s 100 ball tournament, this blog examines the reasons of why they’re looking to invent a new format and the lessons for other sports.
The last time live cricket was available on a free to air broadcast platform was 2005 when Channel 4 lost the rights to Sky. There were grave warnings at the time of the detrimental impact this would have on the sport’s following.
Whilst no one can doubt the broadcast quality of Sky’s offering over the last 13 years, a huge drop in the number of people watching has impacted on the sport. In 2005, an astonishing 8.4 million people watched the fourth test match, whilst this was an exceptional figure due to the excitement of the match/series and was significantly higher than the average test match viewing figure, the contrast with Sky’s average of 500,000 is stark (The Guardian 12th July 2015). When this is mapped against participation it paints a worrying trend. In 2005, the number of cricketers in England was 380,000, ten years later this number was down by over 100,000, a drop of 26%. When comparing this to 16 to 24-year-olds this number is even more alarming, with a drop of 34% over the same period. (Sport England)
We need to caveat these figures by highlighting that there is a broader societal issue with sports participation in the UK which is not insulated to cricket and cannot solely be blamed on the reduced reach from a subscription broadcaster. However, the rate of decline in cricket is far higher than any other mainstream sport. In addition, we believe that the recent announcement by the ECB, that the planned 100 ball tournament will be positioned to raise awareness and interest of the sport with a new audience televised on BBC, proves that there is a correlation between interest/participation and free to air access.
It’s worth highlighting at this stage that we are assuming the comments made by Andrew Strauss regarding attracting ‘mums and kids’ was a mistake. What he meant (we hope!) was that the ECB want to use the tournament to expose the sport to a new and broader audience. Whilst these ECB comments were ill-thought through and sloppy, this new tournament is based on insights that the next generation of cricketers is not coming through.
At the time that cricket was being removed from terrestrial screens, the ECB gave assurances that the increased finances gained from the enhanced Sky broadcast deal would be used to grow the sport and therefore this would net out with increased numbers involved in the game. This approach has since been proven wrong, as many at the time had warned. Young players want/need to emulate their heroes, if they can’t watch them (or don’t know they exist because they’re hidden behind a paywall), it doesn’t matter how many more local facilities or glossy campaign launches there are, unless the next generation are inspired they are very unlikely to play the sport.
Cricket has been one of the most restricted sports in relation to broadcast reach. Both football and rugby have maintained some terrestrial presence, with even Premiership Rugby recently acknowledging the importance of increasing reach by including a limited number of live terrestrial matches in their Channel 5 broadcast agreement.
Overall, it’s a pertinent lesson for all rights holders. Cricket now seems to have recognised their issue and are making a move to resolve. However, all sports need to take note that without accessibility, the next generation will find something else to engage in, a decision which will lead to serious issues in the decades to come. Whilst we acknowledge that this isn’t a black and white issue, rights holders need to define their objectives. Accepting the highest satellite broadcasters offer may satisfy the short term financial objectives, however long-term this will create a drop in participation and interest, ultimately leading to a far greater fall in revenues.
Blocking kids out by sky-high prices, inaccessible tickets or having their heroes behind prohibitive pay-walls impacts the future of the sport. It doesn’t matter how many new 4G pitches are built or clubhouses re-painted, children need to be inspired and have the desire to emulate Joe Root, Owen Farrell or Harry Kane. Mainstream UK sports are all facing similar challenges. We hope the ECB get this right and demonstrate the way forward for sport in the UK.