The Lost Key To The Crown Jewels – How Cricket On Free-To-Air Television Vanished

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.

Davies said:

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 BBC reported that:

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.

And separately:

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.

And then:

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.

Maxie Allen


  • Agree largely with the thrust that cricket’s profile needs to be raised to aid continuing participation and support and that free to air broadcasts are vital to do that.

    But cricket is so weird, and in many ways incompareable to the other listed events in that it is international sport which funds domestic cricket. There are no other valuable rights for the ECB to flog that the other sports have.

    For me this is where T20 as a domestic competition should have come in, could have been on FTA, it doersn’t destroy scheduling and it’s new and exciting, or it was. The horse has probably bolted on that front….

    • This is an excellent account, Maxie.

      And I agree with Mike that T20 – whatever cricket lovers think of it – is the way in, the thin end of the wedge. Its fast pace and short duration appeal to kids and you immediately remove the objection ‘Oh, nobody can schedule cricket, it goes on for so long.’ If you can get a good T20 competition on FTA, there’s hope. Hence the desire for some kind of English Big Bash to be televised FTA.

      But can I shout this: HIGHLIGHTS ARE NOT ENOUGH. Highlights of a cricket match make no sense to viewers who don’t already understand the game. You have to show matches in full, sometimes. And that will mean T20, to start with at least.

      • Great point Zeph – I’d add that highlights are inherently flawed in the social media age anyway. The great attraction of sport is that it is live and unpredictable. It take real work to avoid the score reports – work that casual fans are not going to put in. At which point, highlights are an order of magnitude less interesting.

  • An excellent article and re-emphasises the closed shop and total contempt that the ECB shows for the games supporters.

    “The problems is, the ECB don’t own the game of cricket in England” .
    I am not a legal beagle but can a case not be made to take the ECB to court for selling something that they do not own. I always thought that was fraud. Do you not have a QC hidden away somewhere who would issue a suit against the ECB ?

  • I’d say this was a very charitable view of some of the shenanigans which have gone on between the current government and the interests of News Corp in particular. When the PM himself is close friends with convicted phone hacker Andy Coulson, and continues no doubt to share supper with tainted but not convicted Rebekah Brooks, the quiet ditching of any plan to return cricket to free-to-air television is small fry in comparison.
    Of course it’s all about money. The money the ECB pay themselves, the money SKY makes from broadcasting cricket and the money and influence being good friends with News Corp gives to the Conservative party.

    If it were about sport, or about what people actually want, or about anything at all involving ethical behaviour or a long-term plan for growing participation and interest in sport, . . . well, the current crop of administrators and politicians wouldn’t be seen for dust.

    • I agree that lack of FTA crickert is gradually killing the amateur game, and T20 on terrestrial would be better than nothing, with its instant appeal to young people. I don’t think at present the TV companies could afford it, judging by the proportion of repeats and rubbish which fill the screen these days. I believe that without the Sky income the county game could be killed off too, and then where would the test players come from? It’s bad ernough at the moment, with the Central Contracts creaming off the top quality from the county championship, so that county players cannot develop their game against the best opposition, so hve a big step up when achieving international selection. If less well off counties have to reduce staff there will be less young players growing up in the county game to develop to test level, and talent will be lost to better paid and more secure employment. I don’t like the situation, which is limiting TV cricket fans to those well off enough to pay the dues, and withj a strong enough stomach not to feel sick at the thought of filling Murdoch’s coffers, but I can’t see lsting at theis late stage bringing any joy – we have missed the boat.

      • sky pay the ecb absolutely peanuts compared to any other sports network, precisely because cricket is so invisible in this country that its not worth anything.

        The only way to stop the game dying out completely is to get it onto FTA tv. After a few years on freeview the rights to English domestic cricket would be worth a factor of 10 more than they are now.

        They could make themselves millionaire, but by selling out to sky instead for a short term buck they’re throwing it all away. They’re murdering cricket through sheer stupidity.

  • Very interesting article.

    The ECB’s dream must be a bidding war between Sky and BT Sport. Have the latter shown any interest?

    • Sky are epxected to lose out to BT i nthe next round of footbll rights bidding, effectively swapping around the packages they currently have, if industry tittle tattle is to be believed.

      Hence why Sky have being building the rest of their portfolio of sport so agressively over the last few years, with the Open being the latest example, alongside F1, increased NFL etc.

      BT remain very focussed on football as they know that’s what sells subs and to a lesser degree club rugby union, so I don’t see them making a play at all for the cricket.

      • Apparently BT did bid for the ICC tournaments when they came up (World Cup, World T20 etc) but Sky held them off.

  • I wonder what you would say, Maxie, if a return to free terrestrial coverage led to a pruning of the first-class counties or an erosion of the support for women’s cricket that has led to full-time professionalism and central contracts. I also wonder whether we can trust the BBC, in particular, to give us anything like as good a service as Sky (the evidence is not promising: I give you four words: ‘Graham Gooch’s 333’ and ‘Neighbours’). That aside, the highest compliment I can pay you is that you have made me, a loyal dissident, make me think anew. The connection between the ECB, No.10 and Murdoch, as mooted, is by no means preposterous and certainly warrants further digging.

    • A big underlying problem, Rob, is the present county system not being financially viable. Many counties are effectively bankrupt and the ECB/Sky money is desperately needed for their interest payments on massive loans. A failing system is being artificially sustained and this justifies the ECB in their adherence to Sky.
      Pruning or amalgamation of some sort is needed, but of course counties are unlikely to vote for it.

      As for women’s cricket, I wholeheartedly support professionalisation, but it’s only of a very limited number of players and staff and the sums involved are not that huge.

    • The digital revolution over the past 10 years would, in any other reality, have been an incredible boost for domestic cricket. Suddenly thousands of new channels needing to be filled, and a ready made spectator friendly version of the sport recently invented, and the nation’s full attention following a dramatic Ashes series, and the game should have taken off and really cemented itself as the country’s second most popular national sport.

      By now, the counties wouldn’t need handouts from the ECB, they’d be able to stand on their own two feet, selling out capacity crowds every week due to ten years of increased exposure attracting new and enthusiastic fans.

      But alas, stupidity, short termism, greed and corruption, have derailed this plans to the point where cricket in this country is now staring into the abyss. Every year that goes by, cricket loses profile, loses fans, loses value, becomes an irrelevance.

      I’ve been warning about this for 10 years, its a shame that its taken until now for people to start listening. Lets hope its not too late to save cricket from disappearing altogether.

  • The people who are getting screwed the most is football supporters. They are the ones who prop up sky sports, and are forced to pay ever higher subscription fees each year to watch football. Very few of them either watch or are interested in cricket.

    Football is being taken advantage of and should demand a much higher price from Sky at the next deal. Because cricket and golf and other sports are living off football supporters. If you could buy cricket as a seperate item on your bill would it generate enough money to pay the ECB what they recieve? This is why I reject any notion of so called free markets. There is always some sort of hidden subsidy or loss leader or whatever else it is. The Times newspaper like Murdoch’s New York paper loses money and is propped up by other parts of the Empire

    Many sports have now decided that small audiences paying large fees is the way to go. Take the money now and worry about the future tomorrow. We will see what effect this has on kids playing these sports in 10-20 years time. By then Murdoch and ECB executives will be long gone with all the money.

    The selling off our public resources to members of the 1% who then sell or rent it back to us at a premium price is a feature of the modern world. I am very glad I have lived most of my life in a previous time. In today’s world I would not have discovered cricket as a kid. And please spare me all the clap trap about modern capitalism. We have seen with the bail outs of the banks, the free market is complete bollocks. Actually there is quite a similarity between banking and modern sport. The more they get paid the more crap they perform.

    • This is a highly complex subject. It’s hard for me to draw firm conclusions because I think Sky’s coverage is superb, and they do a better job than the BBC ever could. I loved the way Sky Sports 2 became Sky Sports Ashes last year. However, this is easy for me to say because I’m a Sky subscriber (and have been since about 1998)! I have to say that I do feel for those who love cricket who can’t afford Sky, and I’m extremejy concerned that our sport is dying a slow death behind the paywall.

      Perhaps some kind of compromise is needed that balances the requirements of everyone. I also love golf, and think Sky’s coverage is brilliant, but I am extremely sad that The Open will now be shown on Sky. I love hearing Peter Alliss and Ken Brown on BBC and they make a nice change of pace from Monty etc on Sky. Perhaps the real evil, therefore, is exclusivity deals. Sky’s representative argued on TV yesterday that bringing The Open to Sky was great for golf because ‘all the main tournamenta are now on one channel’. Eh? How does that work? That’s not a benefit unless your remote control is broken and you can only watch one channel. If coverage was on multiple channels then surely a little healthy competition would keep the broadcasters on their toes and inspire innovation.

      I realise that it’s exclusivity that brings in the money, but Maxie’s figures suggest the ECB could afford to lose some income. If this is passed on to the counties then so be it. I realise a couple of counties might go to the wall, but I’m beginning to think our system is a little bloated anyway, especially as the standards are falling now kolpak players are restricted. Perhaps the talent is spread too thin (which increases the gap between county and test cricket). At the moment I sense that Sky’s money is sustaining a bloated system, of relatively poor quality, which is neither benefiting the england team nor the majority of the public. There must be a better way. I suspect bringing cricket back to FTA (or at least some cricket) might end up streamlining the system, increasing spectator and participation levels, and possibly boosting English cricket’s best interests. The trouble is it’s a big risk! One the ECB won’t want to take. They’d rather think about the books (short term), which is unfortunate but understandable.

    • Withut wishing to get into a political debate, couldn’t agree more the “free market” only exist for us poor saps unable to pay to lobby for influence at the top table.

      I’ll say no more.

    • I don’t see how that works. Football fans and cricket fans both have to pay the same subscription fee to get sky sports, and football fans get approx ~ 10 times the amount of coverage for their money.

      Its cricket fans being royally screwed, not football fans.

      UK based cricket fans have to pay 20 times more per game to watch their sport than any other sports fan in any other country in the world. Its criminal ,in the most literal sense.

  • Here in the Regime all international cricket games played in South Africa are free to air as well as on the sky equivalent, DSTV.

    They are often broadcast with a delay. I think it is an hour.

    This could be a useful model for English cricket as it seems doubtful that they will ever go the more appealing and fair Australian route of all cricket being free to air.

    When you watch cricket in England it seems to be a pretty poorly attended affair
    How long do the ECB think that Sky will continue to pay top dollar for something that will eventually be seen as a niche sport because of a lack of exposure to future potential players and consumers.

  • Great article.

    Whatever one’s opinions on the issue, it says something that this kind of detailed analysis is entirely absent from the mainstream press.

  • Regardless of whether cricket returns to terrestrial TV or not, may I compliment you on a truly excellent article that would do the very best investigative journalists proud! Meticulously researched, lucidly laid out chronology, and lays bare the avarice of the ECB and the shenanigans that (likely) played out in the background to ensure Sky Network and News Corp had their way!

    Kudos to you – I hope this article gets the wide viewership it deserves. Keep up the good work.

  • “The lost revenue would spell disaster for English cricket, and the grassroots would suffer the most”

    Just to be clear here, the grassroots would not even notice. We don’t get a single penny off the ECB.

  • One of the issues for me, is the difference in the pricing structure of the new electronic turnstile against the old fashioned physical turnstile. Before TV, fans had only one choice if they wanted to see the game, they had to go and pay at the gate. However, the cost was relatively cheap. Also you paid for what you got. If you wanted to see a days test match cricket you didn’t have to sign up for 12 months contract and also pay for a whole load of other events you don’t want to watch.

    The electronic turnstile is much more expensive. And demands more than just a days play. The model of a small audience paying large fees is the model the tv companies want. But is it not possible to go for a much bigger audience and a cheaper tariff? The cost of ticket prices at the grounds these days is also much more expensive. And in my view can be attributed to the rise in corporate hospitality rather than big demand from average punters.

    It’s quite clear what Sky and TV comapnies want? Namely profit. But is that now becoming the only interest of the so called governing bodies of sport? And surely they have a wider range of responsibilities?

    Richardson at the ICC gives an interview with Cricinfo in which he seems only interested in making sporting events like the World Cup more valuable in the Rights that can be sold to global tv. Goodbye to the minnows. Is this what the governing body should be doing?

  • I see David Lloyd has gone full retard on Twitter in response to this eminently reasonable piece. Still, he’s hardly likely to bite the hand that feeds him is he?

    • He’s actually responding to a completely different post (which barely mentions Sky). Dread to think how he’d have reacted to this one…

  • Maxie, that’s a monumental post, even by your standards. You may have been inspired by someone else, and given credit to him, but most of this work was your own. Ever thought of working in journalism?

    Listening to the R & A’s posh-Scot Dawson getting thoroughly kebabed by Rob Bonnet on the Today programme this morning, I tried to put myself in Dawson’s position: would I go for the money or the ‘reach’ to the next generation of young golfers? Well, we know what he decided, and I suggest that Giles Clarke did the same – not as part of any pro-Murdoch conspiracy – but because he knew that most of the surplus cash would filter through to the players (as it has, in the case of English cricket), and on-field results would justify the decision to go to subscription. At that point, there was no BBC Red Button facility, which meant that they could never televise cricket with a ball-to-ball commitment, as Sky can. For Sky, both cricket and golf are easy daily fodder for their plethora of sports channels, because they can just run them all day and don’t have to worry about putting any other programmes on. Sky’s coverage of golf is spectacularly mundane, as it goes. For the Beeb, with only two channels that could feasibly screen either sport, such elongated events of the glorious outdoor-chess variety that we enjoy so much was always a challenge that was beyond their resources, stymied as they were/are by the demands of their charter. Remember when they took the racing from Ascot in 1990, when Goochie was 299 not out at tea, and we missed the 300th run? If SKy had committed such a felony, heads would have rolled.

    Anyway, until the last Ashes series in Oz, the Sky/C5 highlights plan seemed to be working fine. Flower’s attention to detail on the previous tour, which included the imaginative ploy of splitting the squad to send the bowlers to Brisbane (rather than chilly Hobart) a week early to prepare for the First Test in more realistic conditions, was seen at the time as a master-stroke. Too many of your respondents seem determined to deflower Flower after the KP imbroglio and rewrite history as if the wonderful 3-1 victory never happened, or overlook England’s rise to world No 1, albeit for a brief period. Did they complain at the time about having to pay to view? I’m sure your archives will reveal the answer! But how short are their memories! Yes, it all unravelled too quickly – just as it did after 2005 and we immediately lost in Pakistan – but it was ever thus with English cricket. In my lifetime, I reckon that in each of my six decades there’ve been a couple of good years, three middling ones, and five disappointing/disastrous ones. That’s how it’s always been, and if it was any different, we’d have nothing to complain about except the weather and the under-achievements of the English football or rugby teams.

    Our sporting incompetence (excluding cycling and rowing, of course) is not necessarily the consequence of inadequate leadership, either on (Cook) or off (Clarke/Downton) the field.

    But that was still a seriously good piece!



  • Excellent, and very interesting article. Looking at the numbers it seems Angus Fraser’s justification for keeping cricket on Sky- that doing otherwise would lead to numerous county players (and other staff) out of a job- is much closer to an honest answer than Giles Clarke’s talk about grassroots.

    So, to a certain extent it comes down to how you view the county system: an inflated and outmoded system which needs pruning for it’s own good or a worthy institution deserving of protection? And at what cost does that protection come?

    I don’t have an answer, but it just strikes me interesting how many of the questions about how cricket is run in this country come down to whether we can and should preserve a county system which doesn’t pay for itself. (But is beloved by many people and does provide all the players for the international game…)

  • As many have said above, a wonderfully detailed article that contains such excellent analysis. I am firmly in the ‘cricket should be FTA’ camp (speaking as someone who has never held a Sky subscription and has had to make do with the terrestrial offering for the past decade) and still adore what Channel 4 did for the game when they held the rights.

    However, it is worth noting one element of the listing legislation as it stands – the rights-holder must offer their rights to an FTA broadcaster only if the amount is “reasonable”. If no FTA broadcaster offers what the rights holder deems is a “reasonable” amount, then they are entitled to take the matter up with Ofcom (who administrate the legislation on behalf of the government). Ofcom would filter through the evidence and rule that either the coverage must be awarded to the FTA channel, or agree that the amount offered is too low and allow the sports body to award their rights to a pay channel. Similarly, if no FTA channel wished to make a bid for rights, the sporting body would be within their rights to go pay.

    This also applies to the ‘B list’, as evidenced in 2003 with the Cricket World Cup. Sky held exclusive coverage of that tournament (with no highlights on FTA), despite the fact that ‘List B’ events should guarantee highlights coverage on FTA. Sky (who were subletting the rights) argued that they had had no bids that were high enough to award the highlights rights, the case was taken to the ITC (Ofcom’s predecessor) and the ITC sided with Sky, agreeing that neither Channel 4’s nor the BBC’s bids were of reasonable value.

    Moving back to 2015, if the BBC (or any of the other terrestrials for that matter) genuinely showed no interest in bidding for and screening home test matches, were they to become listed again, then they would still be shown on Sky. Also, if they were only willing to bid a paltry amount, the ECB could request Ofcom to rule on the result of any tender.

    But I accept that this is a bit of a straw man – as I genuinely believe that, should home tests become listed again, the BBC would pay a competitive sum. Not (anywhere near) the megabucks that Sky currently offer, but they would not make a mockery of the system, and the incentive of getting a sport back (and one that fills considerable hours) would, I think, bring a sensible bid from them.

    And for all the talk about interruptions to the coverage, in addition to the Red Button (and online services) as mentioned above, BBC2 daytime now has no budget and no original programming (it merely shows repeats and simulcasts of BBC News). Therefore, were BBC Sport to pay for cricket, it would have a natural home, with no programming to displace.

    Sadly, I think that these points are moot – the genie is out of the bottle, and I can’t envisage anybody at the ECB putting it back in. Our best hope is a Big Bash-style T20 competition that has a strong FTA live presence. And even that appears wishful thinking at present.

    But please keep up the good fight! There is nothing I would like to see more than tests back on FTA.

    • The BBC have been haemorrhaging sports for a number of years now, I reckon they would make a bid if the opportunity arose. They could always just stick it on the red button, you couldn’t do that in the old days.

      It’s also worth pointing out that I watched a better standard of county cricket before Sky. As a Glos fan I got to see Courtney Walsh steaming in for years and Jack Russell behind the stumps. Nowadays the team is full of youngsters who aren’t really all that or foreigners that I’ve never heard of (Keiron Naom-Barnett anyone?)

      What is the status of the 2019 WC? Will that be on FTA in any form?

      • Oh yes, I could definitely see the BBC paying a competitive amount and treating it properly, should home tests become relisted.

        The ICC contract that includes full rights to the 2019 World Cup was sold to Sky just a few months ago. We should have FTA highlights (as it is a ‘List B’ event, so if any FTA broadcaster pays a reasonable sum for the rights, Sky are obliged to sublet them – as they are doing with ITV for the forthcoming World Cup) but that will be all.

        Very sad situation.

  • Hahahahahahahah

    The cost would be most felt by grass roots cricket.. What a joke. Grass roots gets bugger all really from the ECB other than scorn. Ok, so maybe 3-4 major clubs get finances but the majority get nothing, except losing their players and potential youth to said big clubs (who keep the ones they want and annoy the rest into quitting)

    the only people to lose out if all cricket went free to air is the over paid top end players and the coaches/admin and ECB idiots.

    ok, so a few not good enough make weights in the county teams would lose their job.. boo hoo, A few coaches wuld lose their cushy gigs doing silly initiatives that aren’t working anyway… boo hoo

    • I’ve emailed the editor, the sports desk, and another contact of the Graun with a link to this article, following Richard Williams nonsense. It actually made me angry, which isn’t easy to do when I’m as brutally hungover as this.

  • Its the elephant in the room, its impossible to discuss English cricket without an invisible “if only people could actually watch it” attached to the end of every sentence.

  • The sad facts is thought that not enough people watch cricket to make it one of the “crown jewels”. As Maxie says above 7.4m people watched the climax of the 2005 Ashes, one the the greatest series ever. Compare that to the 20 million who watched Germany vs Argentina in the football World Cup final

    As for the Sky coverage apparently just 467,000 tuned in on Saturday for the Ashes match.

    Compare that to the the 1.1 million who tuned into the PDC darts final on Sky between Gary Anderson and Phil Taylor and you can see why cricket is not protected. I am surprised to be honest that Sky have stuck with it!

    Whether cricket could have built upon the 7.4m in 2005 is a different matter. I wouldn’t have thought that the series against Sri Lanka and then Pakistan would have enthralled the nation in the same way

  • You may be interested in this:

    An 8 team city based franchise tournament crammed into 3 weeks and shown exclusively on sky, with several CC games scrapped to make room, represents probably the worst possible combination of terrible ideas.

    On one hand I’m absolutely gutted that cricket is once again contracting and abandoning a huge section of its audience, on the other I’m already anticipating saying “told you so” when it is a complete disaster and leads to several counties going bankrupt.

  • Channel 4 splashed out £140 million on F1 until 2019.
    They’ve now lost them to Sky in 2019.
    The cricket deal is up in 2019.
    Come on Channel 4, use that money on cricket.


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