Sky TV deal just isn't cricket

The decision by the England and Wales Cricket Board to award television Test match rights to Sky could have far-reaching consequences for the game…

Picture the scene. It’s August and you’re watching live coverage on Channel 4 of the 3rd Test between England and Australia.
The series is tantalisingly poised at 1-1, and this game is too close to call.

After a middle order collapse Andrew Flintoff has restored some authority to England’s innings with a typically swashbuckling 80 odd runs and has just plundered 16 from his last five balls.

Cue Richie Benaud: “We’re just crossing over to the horseracing – join us back at Old Trafford shortly.”

OK, maybe I’m hyperbolising slightly but we all know there’s nothing more frustrating then being denied 15 minutes of play to watch the 3.45 from Kempton.

Well, we should all be grateful for temporary interruptions because this summer’s Ashes will be the last live cricket available on terrestrial TV for four years.

The ECB’s recent decision to award the exclusive live TV rights to Sky for four years from 2006 has been roundly denounced from those in and around the sport.

Cricket’s governing body has been accused of thinking solely in the short term by taking Sky’s £220m cheque and sacrificing the game’s long term future.

The main concern of those against the deal is that it will take away the sport’s accessibility to a large proportion of the next generation of potential fans, and potential future stars.

Children up and down the country have been inspired over the last couple of years by seeing Andrew Flintoff smashing sixes and taking wickets on TV, yet in a year’s time only those youngsters whose parents can afford Sky and its monthly sports subscription will be able to watch their heroes in action.

Although the ECB argue that the number of homes with Sky is growing week by week the simple facts do not lie.

Last summer, when Sky exclusively broadcast one game in the New Zealand series, average viewing figures were around the 85,000 mark, whereas Channel 4 recorded an average of 700,000 with an audience peak of 5.2m watching the West Indies series.

Cricketers will talk of the significance of watching TV coverage in their formative years on their decision to take up the game.

Angus Fraser, one of English cricket’s most successful bowlers of the recent era, recently commented: “As a kid I used to love the summer holidays. I could roll out of bed, fall downstairs and lie on the sofa waiting for BBC’s cricket coverage to start at 10.55.

"It meant that I could watch Ian Botham, David Gower, and dream of one day being out there with them. It was here my interest in the game developed, and it was from here that I started to play for Stanmore third XI.”

Although a highlights package will be broadcast daily on Five, it is set to be aired at peak time in the evening, going head to head with the popular soaps for a place in the nation’s viewing habits.

A youngster intrigued by the game whose parents favour Alfie Moon to Michael Vaughan may now never get to fully cherish the sport.

If he or she can’t get to see Steve Harmison or Andrew Strauss in action how likely are they to pick up a bat or ball and give cricket a serious go?

Whilst the ECB argue that a large proportion of money from the deal will be filtered into grass roots cricket, taking the game away from the nation’s psyche is set to marginalise it even further.

Whether we like to admit it or not, cricket has become an elitist sport in the UK over the past few decades and the decision to take the sport away from impressionable youngsters could well confine it to the playing fields of public schools.

The deal may well have adverse affects on the forthcoming generation of potential cricket fans but pensioners who cannot afford Sky are set to miss out from next summer.

The game’s marketing men are also set to miss out.

Whilst they may well be happy to count Sky’s millions in 2005, surely future sponsorship deals with kit manufacturers and blue chip companies are set to dwindle as viewing figures, and almost certainly participation rates, are set to decline.

Although the deal will probably not affect the majority of die-hard cricket fans, as most have Sky already and enjoy its impressive coverage, what will be affected, however are future participation figures.

We all know the significance of children not watching the sport but adults want to be like Freddie too, and local cricket clubs could well experience a lack of enthusiasm from members.

At a time when English cricket is flourishing and the nation feverishly anticipating what should be a closely fought Ashes series, the ECB’s judgment to cease broadcasting the sport on terrestrial TV is seen by many as an almost suicidal move.

Only time will tell if the game’s governing bodies have got it right, but if attendances are significantly down and there’s a void in English cricket talent coming through in a decade’s time the game’s high risk gamble to take Sky’s money will not be vindicated.

So this summer don’t get too disconcerted when we’re whisked off to Exeter, Catterick or Southwell, as terrestrial cricket coverage will resume shortly… for this year at least.