I was at an English-themed pub in Adelaide during early 2018 when a drunk man from Yorkshire, complete with missing teeth, howled over Cricket Australia’s decision to sell telecast rights to Foxtel and Seven West Media.
- International T20 series suffers a lack of public awareness and has no free-to-air television coverage
- Cricket Australia puts the focus on promoting women’s cricket in a summer of change
- Anti-siphoning rules do not stop free-to-air sell-off of broadcasting rights to Foxtel
“Don’t go down the same path as England,” he snarled angrily, as if I’d personally made the decision myself.
“We lost free-to-air cricket and now the whole thing’s gone to s**t.”
I eventually had to remove the irritating man from my personal space, but two years later, with poor international cricket attendances and many Australians unaware games are being played, his warnings ring louder than ever.
Australia versus Sri Lanka’s opening T20 match at Adelaide Oval on Sunday drew an attendance of just over 16,000.
The second match at the Gabba last Friday attracted even less with about 12,000.
The third at the MCG drew a better crowd of 28,568 — about 28 per cent of capacity — while the Australia’s T20 against Pakistan at the SGC drew just 19,176.
It could be argued that an earlier than usual, six-game T20 series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan scheduled outside school holidays is to blame, but when social media indicates people were not even aware games were underway, it suggests something else is afoot.
A lack of promotion
International cricket receives heavy promotion from its broadcast partners, sometimes weeks out from the event.
But because the men’s T20 games this season have been behind a paywall, free-to-air television promotion has been missing and, if criticism on Twitter is anything to go by, the wider public’s awareness is suffering.
Veteran ABC cricket commentator Jim Maxwell said it was fair to suggest promotion had suffered as a result of there being no free-to-air coverage.
“A lot of my friends have been saying, ‘Oh. Is Australia playing?’,” he said.
But he added that with or without promotion, there was a general lack of interest in international T20 unless it was part of a tournament.
“Australia is building towards the T20 World Cup next year, so I suppose there’s a need for them to play as a team in T20,” Mr Maxwell said.
“Until test cricket starts, I think for a lot of us, cricket doesn’t have much clout.
“If you stick it behind a paywall, you’re buying trouble, and that’s what Cricket Australia decided to do.”
Cricket Australia (CA) executive general manager of fan engagement Anthony Everard admitted that playing international white ball cricket this early in the season was “reasonably new for fans and no doubt it’s going to take them time to adjust”.
“We understand the men’s T20 offering is different to what it has been, and we acknowledge it may take time for fans to get used to scheduling and where to watch the cricket,” he said.
He also pointed out that attendances for Australia’s One Day International (ODI) series against South Africa in November 2014 suffered similarly poor attendances — managing just over 14,000 at the MCG — while the ODI series against New Zealand in December 2017 also suffered.
A key difference, however, was those games were broadcast by Channel 9 and this fortnight’s T20 games have not received free-to-air coverage at all.
Judging by the amount of interest online — highlights from the Australia vs Pakistan game at Manuka Oval on Tuesday is trending high on YouTube with 4.4 million views as of lunchtime Thursday — viewing numbers would have been strong.
A focus on bolstering women’s cricket
Mr Everard said cricket was now covered by a variety of platforms, “which will again take time for fans to adjust to”.
“There have been some trade-offs made with some of our formats, but that is in line with our strategy of delivering a broader range of cricket to our fans,” he said.
“Last week alone we had three Sheffield Shield games lives streamed via cricket.com.au and CA Live.”
He said CA had taken significant steps towards “elevating the women’s game, with the Women’s Big Bash League [WBBL] having 23 games on free-to-air television over seven consecutive weekends”.
“The first night of WBBL in Sydney opened with an audience of 390,000 across Network Seven, Foxtel and Kayo [Foxtel’s streaming service],” Mr Everard said.
“We have now just completed our third of seven festival weekends, which is providing continuity and consistency for fans for the first time ever domestically for the women’s game.
“This summer of cricket, more than ever, takes a different shape.”
He added that the women’s and men’s T20 World Cup, to be played in late 2020 in Australia, would be broadcast free-to-air on Channel Nine.
Cricket’s demise in England
The England and Wales Cricket Board in 2005 sold broadcasting rights to BskyB, putting home test matches and ODIs behind a paywall in a four-year deal that earned them 220 million pounds over four years.
Home cricket has not been shown on terrestrial television ever since, although the BBC from next year will have limited rights to broadcast highlights of tests and ODIs, as well some T20s — mostly from the men and women’s domestic competition.
Cricket Australia’s deal in 2018 did not go as far as the ECB’s.
All the men’s home test matches in 2019-20 will remain broadcast on free-to-air along with 43 of 59 home-and-away Big Bash League games.
But the men’s T20 matches will be available only through Foxtel or Kayo, along with the men’s ODI series against New Zealand.
“Cricket is Australia is doing the same thing [as the ECB],’ Mr Maxwell said.
“You have to ask the question, as custodians of the game, are they looking after the interests of everybody by putting it behind a paywall?
“I think the answer from a lot of people would be no.”
Anti-siphoning rules don’t prevent sell-off
In Australia, so-called anti-siphoning rules are supposed to protect certain events from being put behind a paywall.
According to the most current version on the Government’s website, all senior men’s international home games, including T20s, are on its anti-siphoning list, along with all international home women’s matches.
Subscription-based licensees, such as Foxtel, are prevented from acquiring the rights to televise events on the anti-siphoning list until a free-to-air broadcaster has acquired the rights first — or the Minister has taken it off the list at least 26 weeks before the event.
The 2018 deal to put limited-overs games behind a paywall was struck during former communications minister Mitch Fifield’s tenure, despite all the T20 and ODI games for both men and women remaining on the list.
Former CA chief executive officer James Sutherland oversaw the deal.
A spokesperson for current Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said he expected broadcasters to comply with the Broadcasting Services Act, but enforcing anti-siphoning rules was a matter for Australian Communications and Media Authority [ACMA].
An ACMA spokesperson said it was “advised by Seven West Network that it acquired the rights to all cricket matches on the anti-siphoning list”.
But he said the rules did not stop a free-to-air broadcaster from acquiring rights for anti-siphoning listed events and then selling them to a subscription broadcaster, such as Foxtel.
“A subscription broadcaster has acquired the rights to televise matches that Seven West Network does not intend to broadcast,” the ACMA spokesperson said.
“The use of broadcast rights are matters for the free-to-air broadcasters to determine, based on commercial considerations, which are not within the ambit of the anti-siphoning rules.
By that explanation, perhaps worryingly, there is nothing to stop Channel Seven from selling the rights to test matches as well, at which point my antagonistic northerner friend would probably laugh his way to the depths of his next pint.