In the life cycle of a Cricket Australia administration, nothing matters more than the home broadcast deal. There is prize money, ICC distributions, overseas broadcasts, but the value of showing the major summer sport to an Australian audience dwarfs the lot. Everything that CA does depends on that cashflow, as well as keeping cricket in front of as many people as possible. The current contract has another season to run, but with channels Seven, Nine, Ten, and Fox Sports all keen for a slice next time, everyone wants a deal done now.
Last time, in 2018 in the dying months of James Sutherland’s time in charge, was a landmark missed opportunity. Channel Ten had spent the preceding years making a success of the Big Bash League, and with the backing of US giant CBS, offered $960m to put every Australian cricket match on free-to-air. That meant domestic men’s and women’s games, boosting the Sheffield Shield and the 50-over competitions along with internationals and the BBL. But CA wanted to top a billion dollars, and after a verbal agreement with Ten, reneged to split the rights between Seven and Fox for a relatively small increase to $1.18bn, with plenty of that value in contra advertising rather than in cash.
Seven got men’s Tests, women’s internationals, and two-thirds of the BBL, for TV broadcast only. Fox got all of the above as well as exclusive rights to some Big Bash games and all men’s limited-overs internationals, and digital streaming rights for the lot. For the first time a chunk of Australian cricket was sent behind a paywall, which was against the spirit of the anti-siphoning laws protecting the broadcast of national teams.
That ended Ten’s Big Bash model, which had averaged nearly a million viewers a night on the principle of same bat-time, same bat-channel. Anyone switching on at 7pm knew there would be cricket on, never mind who was playing. CA took the golden goose approach, carving up the league between two broadcasters. Games were scattered across venues and timezones. The league grew bloated, putting off crowds and big-name overseas players who preferred shorter assignments. Big Bash advocates still arrange the numbers in all kinds of ways to present it as a success, but the empty grounds and modest talent on screen say otherwise. Last week’s episode of the Sydney Thunder being bowled out for 15 in front of nobody is emblematic.
That has certainly been Seven’s view, having spent much of the deal’s duration complaining publicly about CA and the BBL, and making its new bid for Test matches only. The same network has launched various legal proceedings against CA to reduce payments, including a case yet to be resolved by the federal court. That CA would even consider signing up again is bewildering. It would be like the frog offering the scorpion a return trip across the river while it was being stung on the way over.
Meanwhile CBS has been reorganised as Paramount Global, and has made the biggest offer ever received by CA: about $1.5bn over seven years. Seven or Nine would have to partner with Fox to get anywhere near that bid. Again, this would put all of cricket on one network, free-to-air. Again, though, CA is hesitating. A deal with Nine and Fox might be worth less in cash, but those networks are talking up their ability to promote the game.
Aligning with the Rupert Murdoch empire via Fox does mean that cricket also gets a rails run in most of Australia’s newspapers. This has certainly been the case during the current deal. Throw Nine into the mix and you add the former Fairfax papers that it acquired, covering pretty much the whole print and online market outside the Betoota Advocate. Say what you will about editorial independence, but everyone knows that a rising tide lifts all boats.
There is a slim chance that the recent change of government could mean a communications minister actually enforces the anti-siphoning laws for the Australian men’s 50-over and 20-over matches. More likely though a federal Labor government would rather avoid picking fights with Murdoch companies, and the free-to-air partner would decline to broadcast those games in agreement with Fox. In any case, Fox’s interest is odd given how little one-day international cricket has been played in recent seasons, and how little excitement it has generated.
In the end, it will come down to what vision those running CA have for cricket’s future: taking a chance on something new and unproven, or sticking with what is familiar. It was a big step in 2018 to end the relationship with Nine, but there was also the strong feeling that Nine had become stale. A six-year break might see it freshen up, and for the public there might be a sense of homecoming. Still, Nine means a partial paywall, which, even in the age of multiple streaming apps, is a handbrake on any sport. Usually, as with English cricket, there is a Faustian pact whereby the long-term damage means a lot more cash in the short term. This time, CA could get the extra cash and the free-to-air visibility – and may well reject both. The Guardian