As COVID-19 keeps wreaking havoc worldwide, putting entire countries under severe economic and healthcare stress, it has also brought much of the sporting world to a grinding halt. Understandably in the grand scheme of things, the world of sports in general and cricket in particular pales in comparison to people losing their jobs and lives. Nevertheless, as Keenan Malik expressed so eloquently,
"Sports still represent 'the most important of the least important things'”.
Therefore, this pandemic actually presents a glorious opportunity for a sport like cricket to reflect upon and rejig its bloated domestic and international calendar. There is an urgent need for individual cricket boards to unite for the good of the global game and ensure that cricket as a sport remains accessible to all.
Boards need to think about long-term sustainability rather than opting for the short-term cash grab to offset losses inflicted by COVID-19. One such dilemma is choosing between the Pay TV, Free to Air and Streaming models when it comes to showcasing its cricket. While this issue is universal to all sports, it becomes particularly relevant for associate and emerging cricket.
Dr Paul Rouse, an Irish historian who teaches at University College Dublin, has conducted a brilliant in-depth analysis on the Pay TV Model and its impact on sport. In his words, Pay TV companies desperately crave exclusivity, as it adds value to their model. But this exclusivity comes with a hefty price tag.
Paying sporting organisations huge amounts of money necessitates these Pay TV providers such as BT Sports, ESPN, Sky Sports and Foxtel to pass on the cost to customers by charging high subscription fees. The inordinate sums of money provided by Pay TV companies not only hikes up the amounts paid to players in professional sports but also drives the creation of professionals in sports that were previously amateur.
However, striking lucrative deals with Pay TV companies can be bit of a poisoned chalice for sporting organisations. To put it simply, Pay TV simply cannot compete with Free to Air Television when it comes to viewer numbers.
The strength of universal public service broadcasting is that it provides equality of access to every community within a country, as many simply cannot afford the high subscription fees charged by the likes of Sky, Foxtel and ESPN. The evidence in this regard is crystal clear. Consider the case of cricket in England.
Cricket's exposure on mainstream television
Let's have a look at the viewing numbers for the 2004 Test Series between England and New Zealand. The First Test was shown on Free to Air Channel 4, while the Second Test was shown exclusively on Sky Sports.
The First Test viewer numbers were six times higher for Day 1 and almost 12 times higher for Day 5. At its peak, the 2005 Ashes on Channel 4 attracted 8.4m viewers; a decade later, the 2015 Ashes on Sky got just under 500,000.
England’s dramatic cricket World Cup victory in 2019 attracted a peak audience of 4.5 million on Channel 4 as live international cricket returned to free-to-air TV for the first time in 14 years.
Furthermore, if you added up all the people watching cricket via streaming, Sky Sports and Free to Air TV, the viewership peaked at 8 million. It is comfortably the largest cricket viewing figures in England in 14 years, since cricket went behind a paywall in 2005.
The discrepancy in the numbers is undeniable. And it has real world adverse impact on the sport of cricket. The Sport England Active People survey, conducted between 2008 and 2009, found 428,000 individuals aged 16 or over played cricket at least once during the season. A decade later, this number fell by 32% to 292,200.
These numbers should terrify the ECB, who are supposedly one of cricket’s powerful 'Big 3' boards. And terrify they have, judging by the ECB’s convoluted machinations in trying to get cricket back on mainstream free to air TV. They blew their cash reserves on concocting an entirely new format of the sport, 'the Hundred', to entice the BBC.
And now, they find themselves in a delicate financial position due to the COVID-19 crisis and the resultant postponement of 'The Hundred' to 2021. These examples really underlie the importance of cricket's exposure on mainstream television.
So, what’s the best way forward for emerging cricket in gaining this exposure? Well, it is a complicated question that does not have a simple answer. However, we can safely assume that a model that relies solely on Pay TV to generate revenue and recoup its costs is not a successful long-term formula.
Euro T20 Slam vs European Cricket League
Consider the postponed Euro T20 Slam event. On a cursory examination of the tournament, it becomes quickly apparent that it is very unlikely to drive engagement and tribalism among local fans.
The franchise team names are atrociously conceived - uninspiring and generic - and there is a distinct lack of tradition or tribalism. Furthermore, to this day, actual details about the T20 cricket tournament remain scarce.
No matter how much charity you extend to the Euro T20 Slam organisers, it seems more and more that the tournament itself was basically a cynical, money-spinning exercise designed to capture as much TV audience as possible from the giant and lucrative Indian market.
There was a distinct lack of ;European' flavour in a supposedly European cricket tournament. The Euro T20 Slam draft event featured Bollywood and Punjabi music and to top it all off, the host for the night, Darren Gough seemed generally unfamiliar with most of the ‘local’ Irish, Scottish and Dutch cricketer names.
In order to make the franchise model work and to pay over-the-top wages to marquee players such as Rashid Khan, Eoin Morgan, JP Duminy and Imran Tahir, the organisers GS Holdings have no other option but to sell their content exclusively to Pay TV. This includes providers such as Sky Sports in the UK and Star Sports and HotStar in the Indian subcontinent.
We have already witnessed how viewing figures drop dramatically when sports moves away from free to air channels to Pay TV. Without mainstream coverage on public broadcasting channels such as BBC One in Scotland, RTÉ One and RTÉ2 in Ireland, and NPO 1 in Netherlands, the Euro T20 Slam cricket tournament will make very little contribution to increasing the profile of cricket in these three countries.
Sure, you will get some passionate and dedicated cricket fans through the gates, but it is highly unlikely to capture the attention of casual observers or bring new fans into the sport of cricket.
In contrast to the Euro T20 Slam, the European Cricket League gets many things right. ECL is the brainchild of global macro hedge fund manager and former German men’s national team member Daniel Weston. The founding of ECL is in itself a fascinating story, which I recommend readers to check out.
The ECL mimics many aspects of the phenomenally successful UEFA Champions League Football format, pitting the domestic T20 champions of several European countries against each other in a quickfire group-stage and knockout competition. There are no expensive marquee players and contrived creation of franchises.
Instead, it gives local European club cricketers a chance to shine by building on the existing competitive structure and cricket culture in UK and continental Europe. Crucially, the ECL streams all its content for free through its sister European Cricket Network (ECN), giving it the kind of accessibility that the Euro T20 Slam will never be able to provide.
Furthermore, the inclusion of big name ex-Champions League and Eurovision executives like Thomas Klooz, Frank Leenders and Roger Feiner lends credibility to the project.
The inaugural edition of the ECL in 2019 was a tremendous success and while the 2020 edition has been postponed due to COVID-19, I remain hopeful that this tournament will grow from strength to strength in the future. However, as good as free streaming coverage is, it is still mostly preaching to the converted.
Free streaming ensures that the tournament is easily available to everyone worldwide, but unfortunately it isn't enough to pique the interest of the average ‘native’ European sports fan. This is because people who are not exposed to cricket are not going to seek out streams of ECL to watch the game if they don’t understand cricket, or worse, are not even aware that such a tournament is taking place.
Therefore, getting local European broadcasters on board, particularly free to air broadcasters, is vital. To its credit, the ECL realises this. They have some discussions going on with local broadcasters in Europe, and Weston is encouraged by the likes of the Catalan public broadcaster TV3 who featured the tournament and even added commentary in the local language.
Growing the sport of cricket
Getting those eyeballs into actually playing the sport of cricket is a different challenge, though. And to tackle it, individual cricket boards in emerging countries across Asia-Pacific, Europe, Africa and the Americas need to take a 3-pronged approach.
1) Feature as much cricket as possible on local free to air channels.
2) Invest in grassroot cricket, including facilities and equipment, and get the sport into schools and clubs across the country.
3) Provide a pathway for the junior talent into the senior men’s and women’s national teams.
Phillipe Auclair, a French musician who fell in love with cricket after he moved to England, proposes another interesting strategy.
In an excellent interview with Wisden Cricket Weekly, Auclair states that cricket can be sold to new audiences in a similar manner to how Sumo was sold to viewers in continental Europe.
Rather than starting off with live games or highlights, he recommends using the actual cricket action as a means to explain what is going on. Such an educational approach is necessary to hook viewers who might be tempted by the ‘exotic’ & ‘impenetrable’ nature of cricket into actually trying to understand the game’s rules.
Once a large enough base of cricket followers has been built up, associate nations can start streaming live games. Another sure-fire method in spreading the gospel of cricket and bringing much-needed government funding into the game is of course by putting cricket in the Olympics, a fact that Emerging Cricket Founder Tim Cutler has emphasised repeatedly with passion on the podcast.
Is streaming the future of sports broadcasting?
There are many who suggest that the future of sports broadcasting lies in streaming. Around the world, many established Pay TV providers are struggling to retain consumers who are abandoning traditional TV subscriptions in favour of streaming gadgets and apps.
Lower subscription costs compared to Pay TVand ease of access (able to watch on portable mobile devices) are two of its biggest selling points. The dedicated sport fans these days want more bang for their buck and demand 24/7 access to broadcast-quality streaming.
We see established TV providers such as Foxtel in Australia investing heavily in its subsidiary sport streaming service Kayo, to compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Stan.
In New Zealand, the domestic cricket board recently signed a deal with a streaming sports service provider Spark Sport, which gave Spark to broadcast domestic New Zealand cricket rights for the next 6 years.
And when you look at trends in other sports, similar occurrences can be observed. In 2018, Amazon Prime Video signed a 3-year deal worth $130 million, to stream Thursday night NFL games. They have since also snapped up the rights for streaming 20 live English Premier League matches every season until 2021-22.
DAZN, a London-based online sports streaming platform, recentlywon the rights for streaming nine Bundesliga games for German and Swiss audiences.
Superficially, all the above deals may indicate a revolution in live sports broadcasting. But a closer inspection of the deals suggests that it is not necessarily the case.
Amazon’s 90-million-pound offering for EPL is similar to what BT Sports previously paid to broadcast 20 games per season. After a dramatic entry into the market, Facebook has also recently had to cut back and sign smaller deals with ICC to showcase cricket highlights in India and Major League Baseball in USA.
All the evidence suggests that far from replacing the traditional TV companies, the emergence of streaming has just provided users with an additional way to consume live sports content.
Furthermore, there are lots of downsides to streaming. NZ Cricket’s deal with Spark provoked fury among rural Kiwi residents who complained that even with a fibre optic connection, an entire day of cricket is a drain on their data usage and finances.
The concerns are justified given Spark’s patchy and interrupted coverage of the Rugby World Cup last year and Optus Sports’ well publicised FIFA World Cup streaming problems in Australia in 2018.
Nick Skinner, one of the co-hosts of the Emerging Cricket Podcast, has made some interesting suggestions in the digital realm. Nick recommends that ICC look into developing something like a Cricket Pass, especially for streaming associate cricket matches which often suffer due to low visibility and apathetic coverage.
Such a concept is similar to an existing service in NBA called the NBA Pass; whereby customers can watch an entire season’s worth of games for something like $28.99 a month.
While it is a clever concept and great for existing fans of cricket, I remain sceptical of its usefulness in attracting new fans to the game, given that there still remains a paywall and those unfamiliar with the sport pf cricket are unlikely to seek it out or shell out money to access it.
While it’s true that consumption of digital content has skyrocketed over the last few years, it must be remembered that Free to Air TV still remains the most effective way of reaching people all around the world. And if an emerging cricket board is serious about growing the sport within its national boundaries, free to air coverage of the sport is non-negotiable.
Traditional cricket nations can afford a hybrid portfolio of Pay TV, streaming and free-to-air coverage due to cricket being an established part of the local culture. Also, as long as some form of visibility is maintained on free-to-air networks, the sport of cricket is still likely to survive in these countries.
Unfortunately, emerging cricket nations don’t have this same luxury and therefore face a starker choice, where growing and mainstream exposure of cricket is more important for long term sustainability over a quick cash grab with a Pay TV or Paid Streaming provider. Digital engagement and streaming content can still play a valuable part for emerging cricket nations but they must be accessories to free-to-air coverage, rather than replacements.