We make no apology for returning time and again to the issue of cricket on free-to-air television. This has become an increasingly crucial battleground for those who campaign to democratise cricket and broaden public access to the game.
The issue arouses fierce emotions in every sport. The announcement that Sky Sports have snatched The Open golf away from the BBC was met with widespread dismay. Exactly who welcomed the deal, except BSkyB shareholders? Piece by piece the nation’s sporting heritage has been leeched out of the public domain and concealed behind a paywall.
The Open’s fate underlines the dangers of an unregulated market in sports rights. The tournament was vulnerable because it wasn’t ‘listed’. Neither is English cricket – and hasn’t been since 1998.
Five years ago cricket came within a whisker of returning to the list. An official government review called for its restoration, but the recommendation was first deferred and then ignored. This happened for two reasons, both of them traditional nemeses of English cricket. One was political skulduggery. The other was the conniving, manipulative self-interest of the ECB, who were so desperate to keep cricket behind a paywall that at one point they spent £500,000 on their campaign to prevent re-listing.
Let’s define terms. ‘Listed’ sporting events are the ones for which, by law, full live coverage must be made available to non-subscription national UK television channels. These are the so-called ‘crown jewels’. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport categorise them as events of “major importance to society”, and use the word “protected” to describe their legal status.
The Culture Secretary decides which events make it on to the list. He or she does so under powers given by the 1996 Broadcasting Act. This law is administered by Ofcom, the broadcast regulator.
The current list comprises the Olympics, the football World Cup and European Championships, the FA and Scottish Cup finals, the Derby and Grand National, the Wimbledon tennis finals, the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final, and the rugby union World Cup final.
The ECB have fought tooth and nail to prevent the re-listing of international cricket. Their arguments revolve around money. The board says listing would vastly reduce their television rights’ market value, because if Sky were prevented from bidding, there would be little or no competition between other broadcasters to buy the coverage. The price would plummet, they claim, and a terrestrial channel could snap up the rights for peanuts.
This is the ECB’s Domesday scenario. The lost revenue would spell disaster for English cricket, and the grassroots would suffer the most. Faced with penury, the board would have no choice but slash investment in coaching, youth cricket, and the recreational game. Meanwhile the inevitable reduction of county subsidies would cost cricketers their jobs.
You may or may not think they have a point. From where I’m sitting, the ECB are scaremongering. English cricket managed to cope, and pay its way, decades before Sky Sports existed. Therefore the notion that broadcasting cricket on free-to-air television will destroy its economy is only a hypothesis. No one knows exactly what would happen, especially as the most likely scenarios involve Sky Sports retaining a share of the coverage anyway.
Even if the value of the rights did fall, this could be partially offset by increased revenue from team and match sponsorship. With the cricket shown on free television, the audiences would grow – and the ECB could charge the sponsors more.
Your might agree that grass-roots investment is too precious to jeopardise by losing the Sky cash. But most of the ECB’s outreach projects were devised as reparations for the Sky deal in the first place, to placate criticism about lost access. It’s a cheek to then use them as arguments against returning to the former status quo.
More to the point, what reaches more children – television, or ECB cricket schemes? What’s more likely to inspire the next generation – witnessing a heroic Ashes win, or a one-off school visit from Chance To Shine? Reducing the money spent on outreach work seems a reasonable price to pay for letting the whole nation, young and old, rich or poor, watch cricket again.
Even Sky’s staunchest advocates would be hard pressed to deny that audiences have fallen since the sport moved to subscription television. In 2005, a peak audience of 7.4 million watched the climax of the Ashes series, free on Channel 4. The comparable figure for the 2009 Oval test, shown exclusively on Sky Sports, was 1.92 million.
Another tier of the debate centres on the sanctity of the free market. Shouldn’t the ECB be allowed to sell their assets as they wish, and to whom they wish, without pesky government interference?
The problems is, the ECB don’t own the game of cricket in England, much though they might like to believe it. Cricket belongs to everyone. Britain has a long tradition of using the law to protect public access to public resources. Virtually no one objects to listing the Olympics, World Cup or Wimbledon. The City of London Corporation own Hampstead Heath, but who’d defend their right to sell the land to property developers?
Let’s return to first principles. Why is re-listing cricket so important in the first place? Because it’s the only realistic way of getting cricket on free-to-air television once again.
Colin Graves, the ECB chairman, recently said that:
It would be nice to have some cricket on terrestrial television but the problem we have got is terrestrial television does not want cricket, it certainly does not want Test cricket.
If this is true, then surely the solution is listing? If test cricket – or at least the Ashes – were listed, a terrestrial channel would have to show it. The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 would be under too strong a moral and political obligation to resist.
So you would think the ECB would support listing, as the simplest way of returning their product to a mass audience. The truth is the polar opposite. The ECB do not want people to watch cricket. They go to extraordinary lengths to prevent it.
The listing story tells you an awful lot about how English cricket works. Shadowy figures. Private deals. Friends in right places. Money. Ego. Lost opportunities.
A new hope
Test cricket had been protected as a listed sporting event since the advent of subscription television until 1998, when it was struck from the list at the ECB’s behest. The board had spent years lobbying for the change and as Paul Kelso in the Telegraph put it, the ECB “secured the removal of Test matches from the list” to make the rights more valuable.
Were they already aiming at a future deal with Sky? In the same year, the ECB’s broadcast contract with the BBC expired and they signed a new deal with Channel 4, which began in 1999. At this point the ECB decided to stick with a terrestrial network, but not exclusively. Because cricket was now de-listed, Sky could get a foot in the door, and under the new arrangement they secured exclusive live rights for one of the seven tests each summer.
What began as flirtation between the ECB and Sky blossomed rapidly into a full-blown romance, and on 15th December 2004 came news of their engagement. The ECB announced a new four-year TV deal, worth £220 million, which gave Sky Sports exclusive live rights for all English international and domestic cricket from 2006 (soon extended to 2013 for a further £300 million). This signalled the end of cricket coverage on Channel 4 – and after the 1999 World Cup, shown by the BBC – of any cricket on free-to-air television in the UK full stop.
The deal sparked extensive criticism and, eventually, a political response. In September 2008 Andy Burnham, the Labour government’s Culture Secretary, ordered the first review of the list of protected sporting events since 1998.
According to Robert Winnett, the Telegraph’s Deputy Political Editor, Burnham was keen to ringfence as least some live international cricket for terrestrial television, most likely the Ashes, World Cup or other major tournament.
A Culture Department source said:
Cricket is the only main national sport not on the list and it is an important principle for some live coverage of the sport to be available. This is a sensitive and complicated area and a balance needs to be struck but feelings about this issue are strong.
Burnham himself said:
It is because I believe in television’s social role – its power to include and involve -that I continue to believe resolutely in the principle of a protected list of sporting events set by the Government. We need to look again at whether the right sporting events are protected by the list for free-to-air broadcast.
With cricket’s return to free television now on the radar, the wheels were set in motion. David Davies, the former BBC reporter and FA executive, was appointed to lead the review, in an independent but official capacity. His appointment was greeted by these remarks from Don Foster, the then Liberal Democrat culture spokesperson.
The review should particularly focus on the government’s disastrous decision to de-list home test cricket matches. Cricket’s status was only changed on the understanding that a substantial amount of live test match coverage would continue to be broadcast to everyone. Sadly, this is clearly not happening.
Davies began work. In April 2009 the Guardian reported that:
[He conceded] that the issue of whether cricket would be restored to the A-list, which guarantees live coverage on free-to-air television, was bound to form a key part of his deliberations.
All evidence suggested that Davies would reach a fair and impartial conclusion, based on thorough research, analysis and consultation. Surely there would be no reasonable grounds to reject his findings? With reference to cricket, he told the Guardian:
I’m aware of the strong feelings about this issue that are felt not just by people who watch cricket but by everybody who cares about the game. We have already begun the process of talking to those with responsibility for taking the decisions about the future of cricket’s television rights. In particular, we will be talking to the ECB about how they go about balancing the needs of the future of the sport, how to finance that and make cricket available to a wide audience.
In July 2009, the Telegraph’s Paul Kelso reported the contents of the BBC’s submission to the Davies review.
The BBC argues that there is a case for relisting some Test matches, but falls short of demanding it, and says it would tender for rights if it was re-listed. “In our opinion there is a clear public-value case for re-listing some home Test match cricket… however we recognise that the commercial market for its rights has moved on,” it says. The BBC [also] called for the finals of cricket’s 50-over and 20-over World Cups to be added to the list.
The ECB, however, were already “arguing that [cricket] should stay off the list”.
Undeterred, Davies went ahead. He fought shy of changing the status of all test cricket, but when his review was published on 13th November 2009, after ten months of careful deliberation, officially recommended the restoration of home Ashes series to the protected list, along with football World Cup and European Championship qualifying matches, the rugby World Cup, rugby union internationals in Wales, and – guess what – golf’s Open Championship.
The panel’s task was to look beyond the interests of any one sport, and assess the events that really matter in the modern age. I believe our report is challenging for the sports governing bodies, the broadcasters and the government. But unashamedly it puts the viewing public first.
In the Guardian, Owen Gibson wrote:
The report suggests that the government takes steps to ensure that the BBC Trust properly polices the arrangement. In future, it says, broadcasters and governing bodies should investigate the possibility of moving to a voluntary list, it says.
It also flags up the possibility of asking the pay-TV broadcasters to consider whether there are events that they might consider showing free to air, post digital switchover.
Ben Bradshaw, who by now had replaced Burnham as Culture Secretary, said he “welcomed” the report:
Sport is a key element in our national identity, part of the glue that binds us together as a society. We want to ensure that everyone has access to the sports events that matter most to the nation, as well as a strong financial footing for our leading sports. We intend to publish shortly a formal government consultation on the report’s recommendations. Following the conclusion of the statutory 12-week consultation period, the government will bring forward its final decisions.
The ECB were enraged. According to Gibson:
[They are] preparing to challenge the decision in the courts. They will argue that the decision to list the events makes the BBC the only meaningful bidder. The ECB is likely to call for an independent economic analysis of the impact of the decision, arguing that an estimated £120m to £150m of the value of its contract with Sky is driven by the exclusivity premium around the Ashes.
It will also argue that the BBC did not bid for live rights in 2005 or 2008, citing scheduling issues, and even claim that listing the Ashes could damage the future of Test cricket if Sky chooses to invest in other forms of the game instead.
What the ECB overlooked is that if the Ashes were listed, the BBC would surely have little choice but screen them and pay for them. Previous bidding history was irrelevant.
The ECB will now argue that, by depriving satellite broadcasters from entering the market-place for the most popular home Test matches, their revenue will diminish substantially – and that will have a knock-on effect for the funding of county cricket and the grassroots game.
The Telegraph, meanwhile, suggested that:
[The ECB] will argue that the 10-month process involving a panel drawn from sports, broadcasting and academia, has not been sufficiently rigorous, and that the cost to sports of having a limited market for rights has not been properly examined.
The ECB has argued that a decision to force it to sell its most valuable assets free-to-air would reduce the value of its broadcast deal by £137 million.
The means by which they calculated this hypothetical figure were not disclosed. A suspicion quickly arose: the ECB were using grassroots funding as a fig-leaf. Why would a fall in TV revenue be absorbed entirely by cuts to youth and recreational budgets but no other part of their expenditure? How much were they spending on the grassroots anyway? The ECB employed a disingenuously base appeal to emotions. “Think of the kids. Put cricket on free-to-air television and the children cop it”.
Speaking a few months later, Middlesex director of cricket Angus Fraser appeared to betray the ECB’s real motives when he claimed that “if the Ashes go free-to-air I will have to let seven or eight players go from my playing staff.”
A fall in ECB television income raised the prospect of cuts to the subsidy paid by the board to first-class counties, and hence, Fraser warned, redundancies. Clearly, the counties – who were thinking with their wallets – were already getting itchy, and it’s the counties who elect the ECB hierarchy.
Did Fraser have a point, though? No one wants to see cricketers put out of work. But where’s the logic in keeping cricket behind a paywall merely to subsidise the retention of unsustainably-large county squads? What good comes of financing hundreds of professional cricketers if nobody is watching?
Aside from the grassroots and the counties, did the ECB have other motives for opposing Davies Review? The re-listing of Ashes cricket wouldn’t only affect the board. It would be a huge blow for Sky Sports, the ECB’s allies and paymasters.
Did the ECB feel obliged to protect Sky’s interests? Did they fear upsetting News Corp? Did they worry that a failure to resist Davies might be interpreted as disloyalty? Or did Sky actively ask the ECB to intervene? Did they apply pressure?
And ultimately, who did the ECB care about more? The viewing public? Or Sky?
Whatever their reasoning, the ECB began to campaign furiously against the Davies review’s proposals. This is where the £500,000 comes in – the sum they spent on research to help prove their arguments about revenue.
By this stage their lobbying should in theory have been too late. The ECB had already made their case, at length, during Davies’s consultation process. The government had comissioned Davies, on an independent but official basis, to provide recommendations, and this he’d done.
What argument could there have been for now ignoring his conclusions? Why conduct a review if you take no action afterwards? And during the next few months, exactly what happened behind the scenes?
Meanwhile, a general election was approaching.
Kicked into the long grass
Hugh Robertson, then the Conservatives’ shadow sports minister, began to pick holes in the Davies report. In the House of Commons, in February 2010, he asked the Culture Secretary for “his most recent estimate…of the market value of the events recommended for listing in the David Davies Review of Listed Events” and “whether his Department has commissioned an economic impact assessment following the publication of the [review]”.
The DCMS responded by saying Davies had already evaluated market values, but that this, and the economic impact, would be considered again following the statutory consultation period.
On 24th February 2010, ten weeks before the general election, Robertson nailed his colours to the mast more overtly, when he suggested that a Conservative government would likely reject the Davies recommendations. He said:
When the review was launched the calculation was made that there were an awful lot of votes in returning cricket to free-to-air. Now people are just waking up to the fact that 80 per cent of the ECB’s income comes from broadcast income and if you take that away you are going to decimate quite a lot of investment that’s gone in to women’s cricket and the grassroots. At a time when the public purse is under greater pressure than ever before that’s a brave, if not a very foolish, call to make.
Who had Robertson been listening to? My memory of that period is of almost unanimous public support for re-listing. Only the ECB, as far as I recall, vigorously opposed it. To return to a point I made earlier, the ECB do not own cricket. The public are a much bigger and more important stakeholder than a self-appointed board. Robertson had little interest in what they had to say.
He was, as yet, still in opposition, but a DCMS announcement on 6th April 2010 changed the landscape. The government decided that a decision on whether to enact the Davies proposals would be delayed, in accordance with Cabinet Office guidelines which require major policy decisions to be postponed until after a general election, due only a month later.
Was this the real, and only reason, for the procrastination, or was something else going on? Ben Bradshaw had known the election was imminent when Davies first released his report, nearly five months earlier. Why the delay until, er, the delay?
The election brought a change of government, and Hugh Robertson took office as sports minister. At almost the first opportunity, he booted re-listing – and cricket on free-to-air television – all the way into Row Z.
On 21st July 2010, ten weeks after arriving at the DCMS, he announced that a decision on implementing the Davies review would be postponed until 2012.
Why? Unconvincingly, Robertson cited two entirely separate reasons. He started with the impending switchover from analogue to digital television.
I fully support the principle of protecting major sports events for free-to-air coverage. But with digital switchover concluding in 2012, this will result in the widespread availability of a significantly increased number of television channels, many of which will be free to air. Add to this the BBC’s strategy review, which will cover sports rights, and the Ofcom pay TV review, and the broadcasting context for this decision is increasingly unclear. We have decided that to list a huge amount of extra sports is a decision we cannot afford.
All these factors were known and understood while Davies was undertaking his work a year previously. What had changed since then? Robertson had opposed re-listing while in opposition, without mentioning switchover. But suddenly switchover was now an insuperable obstacle. Or was it just an excuse?
Robertson’s other stated reason for the deferral suggested he had swallowed Giles Clarke’s arguments wholesale:
The current economic climate also points to us not making a decision at this time which could adversely impact on sport at the grassroots. I have therefore decided to defer any review until 2013, when we will look at this again.
The Guardian reported that:
Asked whether cricket risked losing its visibility as a national sport as a result of only being available on pay television, Robertson said that was a calculation that the sport’s governing body would have to make. He [said he] had been persuaded by the England and Wales Cricket Board’s argument that listing the Ashes, thus devaluing the £264m Sky paid for three years of exclusive rights to English cricket, would harm the grassroots.
Robertson did have one good idea. While announcing the deferral, he also proposed a new scheme, run by the Central Council for Physical Recreation, which would encourage sports governing bodies, including the ECB, to invest thirty per cent of their television income in grassroots sport.
In response to the postponement, Giles Clarke had this to say:
The thing that surprised the politicians was the huge response from those cricket clubs who have benefited from the donations, the support, the equipment – whatever we’ve been able to do for them. That is what’s important for us to keep increasing participation in the sport [and] the number of coaches.
Others were more sceptical of Robertson’s motives. Ten months earlier, in September 2009, The Sun newspaper scrapped their support for Labour, after twelve years, and threw their weight behind the Conservatives. The Times did the same. Both newspapers were owned by News International, whose parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, were the majority shareholders in BSkyB. They in turn own the Sky Sports channels, who had plenty to lose if cricket and other sporting events were re-listed.
On the day Robertson announced the deferral, Ben Bradshaw, who’d been Labour’s Culture Secretary until the election, Tweeted that the decision was “payback time to Murdoch” and a “bitter betrayal of cricket fans”. The minister countered that, in the words of the Guardian, “the suggestion the decision was a quid pro quo for the support of the Murdoch press was ‘beneath contempt'”.
It might be stretching credulity to claim Rupert Murdoch gave his papers’ support to the Conservatives just to keep a number of sports events off the protected list. But future events fuelled suspicions of undue influence.
In 2011 the hacking crisis underlined the uncomfortably close relationship between the Murdoch and Conservative party hierarchies. Jeremy Hunt, who as Culture Secretary, and Hugh Robertson’s boss, approved the decision to defer, became the subject of particularly heavy criticism. The BBC reported that:
Jeremy Hunt sent a congratulatory text message to News Corp executive James Murdoch just hours before the minister was asked to oversee the firm’s bid for BSkyB, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.
His adviser Adam Smith resigned last month after admitting that his frequent contact with the company was inappropriate.
The question has to be asked: was cricket used as a political pawn? Did the Conservatives feel that after News Corp’s papers switched allegiance, they were obliged to promote the company’s interests, especially in in the realm of media and sports rights policy, to help the company?
At least there was one crumb of comfort. The government would review the protected list again in 2013. Robertson had made a clear and unambiguous promise.
Spreading the love
Giles Clarke’s defence of the free market revolves, as we have seen, around the vital revenue it generates for investment in cricket’s grassroots. So how much money do the ECB actually spend on recreational and youth cricket?
In the year to 31st January 2014, the ECB turned over £123.3 million and spent £15.3 million on what they call “enthusing participation”. This represents twelve per cent of their turnover – a far cry from the thirty per cent Hugh Robertson had called for.
By comparison, in the same year the ECB spent £39.9 million (32.4 %) on counties and first class cricket, £28.3 million (23%) on running the England teams, and £10.6 million (8.6%) on “governance costs”.
Calculating the exact sums over a longer period of time is tricky, because quite a lot of the cash dispensed by the ECB isn’t their own money but actually comes from Sport England, who currently give the board a package worth £27.5 million. The ECB sometimes receive other government funding too.
The ECB’s total expenditure on participation, including funds derived from third parties, was £18.2 million in the year to January 2014. This compares to a similar sum in 2013 but is significantly less than in 2012, when the ECB laid out £26.2 million – a sum still dwarfed by the £49.1 million they gave to the counties that year. The 2011 figures aren’t available on the ECB’s website, but the 2010 and 2009 allocations for participation were £20.5 million and £21.3 million respectively (with £40.9 million and £40.3 million for the counties).
In fairness, the ECB’s outlay on outreach isn’t trivial. But the sums appear to be diminishing as time passes – and more to the point, the strategy isn’t working. Last year the ECB’s own National Cricket Playing Survey revealed a seven per cent fall in participation from 2013, from 908,000 people to 844,000. Either the investment is too small, or misdirected – or it’s cancelled out by the damage caused through lack of television access.
Giles Clarke’s central case – that putting cricket on free-to-air television is impossible because it would devastate grassroots funding – does not stack up. To reiterate, only twelve per cent of ECB turnover is channeled into participatory cricket – barely more than they spend on governance. The sum is dwarfed by the nearly £40 million distributed to the first class infrastructure – a third of their turnover. The bald figures reveal the ECB’s real fear. Less money to give to the counties. Less money to give to the people who elect them.
Clarke makes great pains to highlight the work of Chance To Shine, the cricket charity who take the game to state school children. He warns that cutting television revenue would spell an end to this invaluable work. So how much of their Sky windfall do the ECB give to CTS? Only £1.25 million a year – one per cent of their turnover.
The ECB are also sitting on a £44 million cash reserve. Even if the ECB were forced to slash their participation budget to zero per cent of turnover, the reserves could still finance their Chance To Shine donations for nearly thirty years – or their entire current recreational spending for three years.
A bout of amnesia
A quick recap. Back in 2010, sports minister Hugh Robertson postponed his decision about the Davies Review until 2013, citing the complications posed by digital switchover. David Davies had recommended listing the Ashes as a protected event, which by law would have to be made available for free-to-air television. This was a key conclusion of an official review commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The only thing required to enact the recommendation was the approval of the Culture Secretary. No new legislation was required.
Robertson had said:
I have…decided to defer any review until 2013, when we will look at this again.
Fast forward to 2013. By this point, the ECB had renewed Sky’s exclusive deal until the end of 2017, with the broadcaster retaining the option – now taken up – to extend until 2019.
The digital switchover had now taken place and DCMS were due to dust off the Davies Review and make a decision. Nothing happened. Not only did the department take no action, they neither explained why nor made any attempt to clarify the situation. David Davies’s proposals – inconvenient for politicians, craved by much of the public – simply evaporated.
Either the DCMS forgot about the whole thing – or hoped we would forget.
It’s now 2015. Two more years have passed since the timetabled 2013 re-review was due, and nearly five years since Robertson’s original deferral. Since then Helen Grant has replaced him as sports minister, and first Maria Miller, and now Sajid Javid, have succeeded Jeremy Hunt as Culture Secretary. But whatever the personnel, the department have done nothing, and said nothing.
So what’s going on? At this juncture we’re heavily indebted to TFT reader and commenter Simon K, who provided much of the inspiration for this article. He’s been doing some digging around, and wrote to DCMS for their side of the story.
One of their civil servants replied to him, saying:
The Department does understand how important it is to people to be able to watch the important events in the sports they love. Government policy has been to ensure that key sporting events can be made available to as many television viewers as possible on free-to-air television.
The list was reviewed by an Independent panel Chaired by David Davies in 2009. Prior to this, it was last reviewed in 1998.
We have no plans to re-open the list at the moment. In 2010, the Government announced that it was not going to pursue the recommendations made by David Davies in 2008 [sic] but that it would review the position after the completion of Digital Switchover.
Switchover is complete, but we have no timetable at the moment for a further review of listed events. Our main priority is to continue to make key sporting events available to as many views [sic] as possible and not to put additional financial pressure on sports bodies in these difficult economic times.
And that was that. “Difficult economic times”? According to David Cameron, the UK economy is “growing strongly”. But if money is tight, and the Institute For Fiscal Studies say real wages are falling, it’s even harder for hard-pressed families to afford a subscription to Sky Sports.
In the absence of a proper explanation from the DCMS, we are entitled to draw our own conclusions. Here’s mine. The government are supposed to put the viewing public first in any decision about broadcast regulation. Their independent advisor told them to re-list the Ashes. Instead they had their ear-bent, in cowardly fashion, by Giles Clarke. They unquestioningly bought the ECB’s superficial arguments about grass-roots funding without scratching the surface and looking at the facts. Even a cursory glance at the figures would have made the truth obvious: recreational funding accounts for barely more than ten per cent of the hefty spending fuelled by the Sky windfall.
The selfish and greedy ECB, perpetrated an egregious deceit and held the government to ransom in the most cynical way. “Deny us our sugar daddy, and it’s the children and communities who will lose out, they said. “Is that what you want – ruined childhoods and fractured communities?”. Their premise, of course, was false. The ECB wanted the money for themselves, and for the counties. They wanted to keep Sky sweet. And ultimately, they would stop at nothing to prevent the public from seeing any live cricket on free-to-air television.
But it’s just as likely the DCMS cared little for the ECB’s laments, and simply used grassroots funding as a pretext for doing News Corp a favour. And whoever the government were listening to, it certainly wasn’t the millions of the general public who support the restoration of cricket to free television. The most important and numerous voices are the ones who count for the least. When publishing his review in 2009, David Davies said it “unashamedly puts the viewing public first”. If only others felt the same way.
Not all hope is lost. Another general election is only three months away. Labour, who are now in opposition but when in government originally commissioned the Davies Review, are making promising noises. Last month the Telegraph reported that:
England and other home nations’ qualifying matches, the Six Nations, the The Ashes and the Open Championship could all be added to the list of events protected for terrestrial broadcast if Labour wins the next election. Shadow sports minister Clive Efford confirmed on Monday that the party was considering including an expansion of the so-called ‘crown jewels’ – which must be televised free-to-air – in its manifesto for the May 7 ballot.
Of cricket, Efford says:
Whether the [current Channel 5] highlights package is sufficient for people to follow what’s going on should always be kept under examination to see what’s in the best interests of the sport and the fans.
Troublingly, he’s also seems influenced by the ECB’s guff:
With regards to the Ashes, I’d want to sit down with the England & Wales Cricket Board and discuss the implications of that with them, because the sale of those rights is a large part of their income, which they use to invest at grassroots.
But at least it’s a start, and he’s made the right noises.
Whether or not you agree with me that cricket on free-to-air cricket is desirable, I hope I can convince you of the need for transparency. Our government has the power to take vital decisions about access to our game. Those decisions must be fully explained and justified in public, with full disclosure, and the people who make those decisions held accountable for them.
As the election approaches, there are things we can all do. We can write to the parliamentary candidates in our constituencies, to ask them where they stand on re-listing sporting events, how they would vote on the issue, and what influence they could bring to bear. We can air our views. We can also write to the DCMS. Simon K has contacted the department again, requesting more detail about their decision to shelve the Davies Review, under the Freedom of Information Act. As soon as they reply, we’ll tell you what they have to say.