Few topics reveal the warped nature of ECB cricketing logic more vividly than their desperation to avoid returning The Ashes to terrestrial TV.
And now Lord’s top brass will be pinning their hopes on a Conservative election victory in May.
The party’s sports spokesman Hugh Robertson this week implied that a Tory government would not enforce the David Davies review’s recommendations – namely, that home Ashes series be ‘listed’, and available only on free-to-air channels.
Robertson’s analysis of the issue appeared to come straight from the ECB manual of corporate-speak:
“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.”
It’s troubling that a potential future minister has unthinkingly swallowed Giles Clarke’s arguments whole. To say he sounds like a stooge is putting it mildly. But more unedifying still is the chilling insight he affords into the arrogant cynicism of the cricketing establishment.
Losing TV revenue, Robertson and the ECB argue, will mean less money for women and grassroots. No mention of cutting marketing budgets, executive salaries, England players’ wages, or the huge county club subsidies paid to Kolpak imports. No – that stuff will always get the money, but the girls and kids will lose out. As Clarke told the BBC last November, “[the] 10,000 new coaches we’re coaching in the next four years – we wouldn’t have a hope of coaching them in the future. We wouldn’t have the money, we would have to cut it out.”
The threat that coaching will be the first item out the window if the axe falls speaks volumes about his priorities. And while we’re on the subject, where exactly is all this grassroots investment? Do you see any evidence of it in your neighbourhood or local cricket scene? Is your town groaning under the weight of youth cricket initiatives and excellent public facilities? Unlikely. As I understand it, the money goes only to ECB accredited league clubs, and the coaching is largely for talented children already within the elite colts system.
But that’s hardly grassroots. What about youngsters whose parents might not think of enlisting them at Hoity Toity CC, and miss out? Or kids who aren’t good enough to make the first XIs – but would still have their lives enriched by playing cricket just for the fun of it. And what about us – fans, followers, and village players? We are the most important part of English cricket. We are the largest interest group by far, we pay for it all, and without us, England matches would have no context. So where’s our share of the Sky windfall? Tickets for international cricket in England are extremely expensive. Village cricket clubs receive no subsidy; decent public-hire pitches are massively over-subscribed. And not a single English child can watch cricket on TV unless their parents want to pay for it and are able to.
The ECB’s talk of grassroots is almost impossible to distinguish from complete bollocks. It’s a political sop, to protect their income, one third of which – £31 million in 2007 – goes to the counties…who in turn, elect the ECB. Where they do invest, it’s only within their own self-perpetuating system. If you’re an outsider – in other words, an ordinary cricket fan – you don’t count, so cough up.
If the Ashes return to terrestrial TV, surely the BBC or C4 will still pay something for the rights, even if it’s less than Sky offer. Meanwhile the ECB can continue lining its pockets with the Sky revenue from all other home series. But Giles Clarke maintains that re-listing “would take cricket back to a position of extreme poverty.” And this is what really terrifies him. In ECB-land, it seems, success is measured only by England performances and revenue targets. They don’t recognise their wider role in representing the interests of the entire English cricket community. Everything has a price, which is why Clarke thinks he can ‘buy’ grassroots development merely by signing a cheque for youth coaching. The wretched Hugh Robertson believes English cricket can’t afford free-to-air TV coverage. The truth is that we can’t afford not to.