Cricket Australia faces a summer of discontent.
The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed financial and governance tensions and mistrust involving its players’ and state associations. However, those issues are a distant second to the current dissatisfaction and distrust that one of the sport’s broadcasting partners has with the quality and scheduling of the upcoming domestic playing season.
Channel Seven’s A$450 million concern with the restricted number of Australian international cricketers who might appear in this year’s BBL tournament now threatens to destabilise the sport’s principal source of revenue – the combined Foxtel and Seven six-year broadcasting deal signed in 2018 and worth A$1.18 billion over its six-year term.
COVID causes chaos
In March, it had all looked so different. On International Women’s Day 2020, the MCG hosted the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup Final. Played in front of 86,000 people, Australia’s victory over India was a suitable end to a highly successful tournament. Within a week sport in Melbourne – including the first Formula 1 race of the year – and indeed globally had to shut down due to the pandemic.
Of all the major sports in Australia, cricket seemed the best equipped to survive the coronavirus lockdown. By then, 90% of the season had been completed. The men’s T20 World Cup tournament, to be hosted by Australia, was not scheduled until October, a month that marked the second anniversary of the appointment of the then CEO of Cricket Australia (CA), Kevin Roberts.
And yet the following month 80% of staff at Cricket Australia were stood down. The CEO was indicating that by August cricket would, to the amazement of many within the sport, have severe cashflow problems.
By June it was clear the men’s T20 World Cup would have to be postponed and Roberts was gone. He was replaced on an interim basis by Nick Hockley, then the CEO of the T20 World Cup local organising committee who had overseen the successful women’s T20 World Cup earlier in the year.
The previous Cricket Australia CEO, James Sutherland, had been in the job for 17 years. In contrast, 2020 was a precarious year to be a CEO in Australian sport – the CEOs of both Rugby Australia (RA) and the National Rugby League (NRL) also departed their jobs in April.
Reflecting on the year’s instability, Sutherland commented empathetically that when you’re a sports administrator, you can deal with anything but uncertainty.
And for all Australian sports, 2020 has brought nothing but uncertainty to their finances, competition scheduling and administration.
Too much riding on broadcast deals
However, one point that has been constant in the operation of elite professional sport in Australia and elsewhere is how dependent their revenues are on TV broadcasting deals. The AFL’s revenue in 2019 was just shy of A$800 million, half of which related to broadcasting and media. Broadcasting accounted for 61% of the NRL’s total revenue last year.
The lengths to which the AFL and the NRL have gone to ensure their seasons go ahead – from biosecurity hubs and lobbying state and federal governments for border exemptions, to pay cuts for players and staff – must be seen in the context of their dependency on TV money.
In April, the equation for the AFL and NRL, as it was for Rugby Australia and the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) whose schedules were also affected, was simple: in the absence of games, there would be no obligation on broadcasters to honour their TV rights deals. This meant up to two-thirds of the sport’s revenue would disappear overnight.
In terms of contract law, broadcasters hinted at provisions in the agreements with sports such as force majeure clauses (unforeseeable circumstances), acts of God and other principles of contract law, such as the doctrine of frustration.
Broadcasters argued these would allow them to walk away from existing deals given that, for reasons outside both parties’ control, the playing season could not go ahead as scheduled, if at all.
Even as sports bodies desperately gave them assurances a season would go ahead, broadcasters remained adamant that the product they had originally paid for was now of such a different variety that the original broadcasting deal would have to be stood down and terms and conditions renegotiated.
Clearly, it was in the interest of the above sports bodies to enter into such negotiations. They did so with alacrity and some success. It must also be noted that an absence of live TV would likely have had an impact on what has fast become the second-most-important source of review for Australian sport – gambling.
For the broadcasters, as the playing seasons in the AFL, NRL and other codes were about to begin, they were acutely aware that without sport a significant advertising hole would be left in their schedules for the next six months. Moreover, given the pandemic had halted production of other advertising-rich programs such as reality TV, and the postponement of key international events such as the Olympics would exacerbate the scarcity of live sport on the schedules, it was also in the interest of broadcasters not to walk away from such deals.
Lessons from a difficult year
The lessons from all of this are that, despite its protestations, it seems inevitable Cricket Australia will also have to renegotiate its broadcasting deal with Seven. The reality for modern sports organisations is that, while they rightly lament the absence of spectators, a dearth of subscribers does much greater commercial damage.
Cricket Australia faces a slightly trickier situation than the AFL, NRL and others faced earlier in the year. A key concern for the domestic broadcasters is that CA has been frustratingly slow in confirming its summer schedule.
Moreover, in renegotiating with other sports, there was never an issue that the best players available domestically in those sports would not play. Given the international demands and scheduling in cricket – notably Test matches against India and Afghanistan – it seems CA cannot guarantee the availability of the quality of player in competitions such as the BBL that the broadcasters feel their money deserves.
While matters now seem tense between CA and its broadcasting partners, the current standoff is probably all just part of the preening process. Already, CA has responded by indicating it will be more aggressive in its recruitment of marquee international players for the BBL. It has also raised the salary cap for those on BBL rosters. A “relaunched” BBL in its tenth year and over the summer holiday period would be an attractive proposition.
As the interim chief of CA, who is in an unenviable position, contemplates the inevitable phone call with the broadcaster, it might be advisable for him first to call the CEOs of the other sports organisation that have been recently through this process. The sport’s former, long-time boss Sutherland, recently installed as the CEO of Golf Australia, would also be worth talking to. Their experience could be invaluable for cricket in the weeks ahead.
Finally, an interesting subtext to all of this is the emerging view that sports rights are overvalued and the future of such deals lies elsewhere in streaming services and on other digital, even in-house platforms.
But that is a matter for the future. For now, cricket powerbrokers should heed the advice of one of sport’s most colourful dealmakers, the boxing promoter Don King, who once said that, in sports contracts, you never get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.
Under a new broadcast rights deal Cricket Australia will part ways with its long broadcast partner, the Nine Network, after more than 40 years.
The A$1.182 billion deal lasts six years and will commence from this coming summer through to 2024. It will be split between Seven and Foxtel.
As part of a new deal, Seven West Media will pay A$75 million per year to broadcast Big Bash League matches (43 of the 59), all home international tests, including the Ashes (2021-22), some Women’s Big Bash League and International matches, along with award ceremonies including the Allan Border Medal and Belinda Clark Award.
Are sport broadcast rights worth the money?
Foxtel will pay A$100 million per year and promises to “show every ball of every over bowled in Australia”, also part of the new deal.
Foxtel will have a dedicated cricket channel. Its coverage will include: simulcasting games from Seven, exclusive rights to men’s one day international and T20 games and 16 Big Bash League matches.
A key for part of the deal for Foxtel has been it securing exclusive digital rights.
The Nine Network’s partnership with Cricket Australia had a rocky start when the Australian Cricket Board decided to ignore Kerry Packer’s bid in 1976, in favour of the then partner – the ABC. Packer then changed cricket forever with World Series Cricket.
Today’s new media rights deal is another major shift in Australian cricket history. Not only is it the first time Seven will be involved in cricket, the new deal will also allow Australian cricket fans to have access to more cricket coverage than ever.
While there are more hours, there is a definite shift in what will now be shown on free-to-air television.
The current cricket broadcast rights deal with Nine and Ten is a five year A$590 million deal, ending this year. It was an 118% increase on the previous five-year deal.
Cricket Australia desired a similar increase with its new broadcast rights deal, asking a A$1 billion price tag. While it reached the A$1 billion price tag, the deal is for six years rather than five years.
Despite this, the deal is on par with recent increases in the cost of Australian sports media rights. Cricket Australia’s new rights deal matched the percentage increase from the previous deal, (achieved by the AFL) of 67%.
The winners and losers
The rights for Foxtel are a massive win, as Foxtel has lacked Australian summer sport content. By gaining the cricket it now has a full-year calendar of Australian sport. Its exclusive digital rights will allow Foxtel to expand its streaming platforms and potentially increase subscription across both its cable and digital services.
Foxtel’s exclusive digital rights will also dictate what Seven can do with cricket coverage. In recent years Seven has established a free (with ads) and premium service for its major sporting rights, including the tennis and the Olympics. For the cricket it appears that Seven will not be able to incorporate this approach.
Despite this Seven executives see the cricket rights as a better deal in comparison to the tennis rights, which it recently lost to the Nine Network. This is because the cricket media rights give the company over 400 hours of sport, more than double that of the Australian Open.
Previously UBS media analyst Eric Choi had stated that Nine lost A$30-40 million a year on the current cricket rights deal. Nine will still have cricket as part of its schedule as it has rights to the next Ashes series from England and the ODI World Cup in the UK in 2019 and the T20 World Cups in Australia in 2020.
The biggest loser from the broadcasters’ perspective is Ten, that has held the rights and gained high ratings from the Big Bash League. It will now need to find programming to fill a very big void in its summer lineup.
Now Cricket Australia has to play a balancing act to make sure cricket is not placed behind a pay-wall and therefore see levels of participation decline, as seen in the UK.
It has to ask itself, will Australians pay to watch cricket on their screens?
Overnight, Cricket Australia handed out its promised “significant sanctions” for a ball-tampering incident that has engulfed the sport in scandal. Steve Smith and David Warner, the team’s captain and vice-captain, have been banned for 12 months. Cameron Bancroft, who carried out the failed plot, received a nine-month ban.
It was also revealed it was sandpaper, and not “yellow tape and the granules from the rough patches of the wicket” as originally claimed, that Bancroft tried to use to alter the ball’s condition in the Test match between South Africa and Australia.
While the International Cricket Council (ICC) initially suspended Smith for only one Test, all three are now banned from international and domestic (professional) cricket in Australia. Smith and Warner have also had their lucrative Indian Premier League contracts torn up, and some sponsors have already distanced themselves from the players and the sport. But these measures fall short of the lifetime bans some called for.
As captain, Smith has borne the brunt of the public and media vitriol, particularly as he accepted responsibility for what had happened. He may yet be Australian captain again in the future.
But according to Cricket Australia’s investigation, it was Warner who developed the plan and instructed Bancroft – a younger player – to carry it out. Warner also showed a “lack of contrition” and will therefore not be considered for any leadership position in the future.
Does the punishment fit the crime?
Ball tampering is clearly cheating; it breaks the rules and is against the “spirit of cricket”. But while it has been deemed the “moral equivalent of doping”, there is a lack of consistency in how sanctions are dished out to offenders.
Bans for doping violations are often severe. Players such as Andre Russell have been banned for 12 months for failing to record their whereabouts for drug testing. But, historically, ICC bans for ball tampering have been more lenient: Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi received a two-game ban for biting the ball in an attempt to alter its condition.
However, a harder line has been taken for incidents of match-fixing. Three Pakistan players were banned and jailed for a spot-fixing incident in 2010. South Africa’s Herschelle Gibbs received a six-month ban in 2000 for agreeing to fix a match, even though he did not follow through with it.
Lifetime bans are not uncommon in sport generally. Ryan Tandy was banned for life for attempted spot-fixing in a rugby league game. Lance Armstrong was banned from sanctioned Olympic sports for life and had his results voided for his serial doping in cycling. Even figure skating is not immune: Tonya Harding was similarly banned for hindering the prosecution into a vicious attack on a fellow competitor.
It is difficult to compare sanctions across sports. But, when doing so, the inconsistencies are apparent. Boxer Mike Tyson was handed a 15-month ban for biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear; footballer Luis Suarez received an eight-game ban for racially abusing an opponent; fellow footballer Paul Davis only served a nine-match ban for punching and breaking an opponent’s jaw.
In light of these punishments, are nine- and 12-month bans for premeditated cheating and lying reasonable and just?
Cricket Australia has been criticised for the time it took to reach a decision. But it’s essential that due diligence is done and facts are gathered before a sentence is handed down. Without this, decisions are made through the pressure of public shaming, and social media get to cast the final vote on the punishment.
If sporting organisations want players to act morally on field, then they too should be guided by moral behaviour in governing the sport.
Forgive and forget?
Society is often keen to forgive top athletes when they transgress. When athletes admit their mistakes and ask forgiveness it is usually granted.
Over time, sports fans also tend to forget athletes’ errors and focus solely on their on-field ability. In cricket, for instance, Don Bradman’s role in disputes over pay as a cricket administrator is largely glossed over. Shane Warne’s year-long ban for a doping violation is rarely mentioned.
In many sports, athletes’ chequered pasts are ignored in favour of their on-field ability. It is often the actions that come as a result of their behaviour that are judged, and not the infringement itself.
Athletes frequently transgress, but their subsequent redemption is often woven into the narrative around them. Stories around sporting heroes follow several patterns, but the most recognised is the hero’s journey. The “hero” sets out on a quest but is faced by a crisis or descends into a hellish underworld. They “heroically” overcome these challenges and ultimately return to glory.
In this instance, Smith, Warner and Bancroft are in a hell of their own making. If they manage to return, and do so triumphantly, then it is likely they will be forgiven – and some may even forget their role in this sorry affair. Only time will tell whether they will again be considered heroic.
The public fury that greeted the premeditated ball tampering orchestrated by Australian cricketers Cameron Bancroft, Steve Smith and other team members in Cape Town suggests the incident is seen as diminishing the personal integrity of every Australian citizen.
As a sport psychologist for more than 30 years, I have seen the best and the worst of athlete behaviour but even I felt personally affronted.
The conspiracy to cheat, casually hatched by the senior playing group over a lunch break, reverberates well beyond cricket and even sport itself.
Not only is the incident seen as tarnishing the baggy green and the legacy of Aussie test cricketers who went before, but more importantly it has removed any vestige of the country’s moral high ground.
No longer can we point the finger. No longer is breaking the rules something committed by others in the cricket world, such as Faf de Plessis and his Lollygate incident and Pakistan’s spot fixing scandal, rather than by us.
Bancroft was contrite in front of the world’s media and clearly willing to take his punishment. Smith’s response to getting caught red-handed was acute embarrassment followed by an affirmation that he remained “the right person for the job” of Australian cricket captain.
Their lack of awareness of the tidal wave of criticism that would break once the nation woke up to the news spoke volumes about the culture that pervades this team.
Criticism from abroad has been equally vicious. “This pious team who look down on everyone else … are getting their just desserts,” chimed in England spinner Graeme Swann, accusing the Australian team of longstanding double standards.
Former England captain Mike Atherton, now an erudite sports writer for The Times, headlined that the “stink surrounding hypocritical Australia goes deeper than ball tampering alone”.
How long before someone raises the spectre of a convict past to explain the fact that national representatives of Australia have been shown to be untrustworthy?
Is the tough but fair image gone?
As England’s sport psychologist in the 1993 Ashes series, I watched at close quarters as an Australian team featuring Border, Boon, Hayden, Healy, Hughes, Taylor, Warne, and the Waugh twins brushed England aside for a 4-1 victory.
They played tough but fair cricket born of a glue-like culture that was as impressive as it was intimidating. They were local blokes made good, revered as the embodiment of values shared by the average Australian.
My experiences in international sport have taught me the double-edged nature of strong team cohesion: a boost to performance but with potential to lead honourable people into questionable moral territory, both on and off the field.
The empirical and anecdotal evidence of a positive relationship between team bonding and sport performance is unequivocal.
The downside of creating a culture of unquestioning mutual support among a group of men desperate to win test matches is that a dual moral code can evolve. This sees them do things in the pursuit of victory that they would not contemplate in the real world.
The ball-tampering attempt was seen as both dumb and unconscionable, given the sheer number of on-ground TV cameras. Yet it provides evidence of a warped moral code, rather than low IQ, on the part of Smith and Co.
“It was worth taking the risk” seems to have been their mantra. Wrong!
It is one of the clearest examples of the pedestal syndrome, whereby prodigiously talented young sportspeople are elevated in society to the point at which they lose sight of the difference between right and wrong.
Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull alluded wistfully to the fact that Australian cricketers are regarded more highly than any politician.
Smith was feted by the media and the public over the previous 12 months for his brilliant form, labelled the greatest batsman since Bradman. This is undoubtedly the highest pedestal available to the modern cricketer.
But he now appears to believe that the almost sacred rules against ball-tampering apply only tangentially to him and the Australian team.
With just a few remorseful words, delivered with apparent indifference to the magnitude of the act, Smith went from hero to zero faster than the disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson ran his drug-fuelled 100m.
It’s not cricket
“The cricketing gods have spoken loud and clear,” concluded Allan Border, as Australia crumbled to ignominious defeat by 322 runs in Cape Town.
Never has the result of a test match mattered less. The apparent death of Australian integrity, forged through two centuries of nation-building, wartime heroics, and sporting achievement, has been greeted publicly with the early stages of a grief response.
The shock and disbelief has been followed rapidly by white-hot anger that the custodians of values burned deep into the national psyche have betrayed the people of Australia.
What follows is uncertain. The International Cricket Council has meted out its customary slap on the wrist for cheating in the form of a one-match ban, while Cricket Australia has stood down the captain for the final test match of the series.
It has hardly been a draconian punishment so far.
Long road to recovery
Meanwhile, how do parents explain to their children that their heroes are dishonest and can’t be trusted? Will we see an exodus of participants from grassroots cricket?
Discussion among pundits looking for explanations has already unearthed social injustice, the cult of celebrity, mega salaries, A$10 million homes, first-class travel and inflated entourages as contributing to the moral failings of our national representatives.
The term “that’s just not cricket”, once a condemnation of anything with even a whiff of moral turpitude, is now surely destined to become something of a compliment.
It’s a long road back to respectability for the Australian cricket team, which may have to start with root-and-branch changes to its culture from the top down. As for forgiveness from the Australian public, that may take longer still.
Australian cricket is engulfed in scandal after TV cameras caught Cameron Bancroft attempting to manipulate the condition of the ball during the team’s third Test match against South Africa. Bancroft and the Australian captain, Steve Smith, subsequently admitted to the offence and the collusion of the player leadership group in the decision to do so.
Altering the condition of the match ball is against the rules of the sport, contrary to “the spirit of cricket”, and deemed to be “unfair”. It is a form of cheating.
What is ball tampering?
Cricket is not only controlled by a set of rules but, according to the sport’s laws, it should also be played “within the spirit of cricket”.
Like most sports, cricket is a self-regulating entity. The national associations and, ultimately, the International Cricket Council (ICC) enforce the laws. That said, cricket remains tied to gentlemanly ideals and the myth of “fair play”.
This “spirit” encourages respect for players and officials while advocating for self-discipline. Significantly, it says the:
… major responsibility for ensuring fair play rests with the captains.
Within these rules, law 41.3 identifies changing the condition of the match ball as an offence and “unfair play”. Specifically, law 41.3.2 states:
It is an offence for any player to take any action which changes the condition of the ball.
But why is the condition of the ball so important?
The ability to “swing” a ball is a prized skill in cricket. Altering the condition of one side of the ball can help it to swing, and may provide an advantage to the bowling team.
Players try regularly try to “rough up” one side of the ball by, for instance, deliberately bouncing it on hard ground or applying sweat or saliva to it in ingenious ways. Such practices are not deemed to be contrary to the laws, even if they may not be within the spirit of cricket. Cricketers can bend the rules but not break them.
However, others have been known to use fingernails to scratch the ball, or have rubbed it on the zip of their trousers. Such measures are against the laws and are punishable under the ICC’s Code of Conduct.
In this case, Smith has been banned for one match and fined his match fee. Bancroft, who was caught with a piece of yellow sticky tape that he was attempting to use to tamper with the ball, has also been fined most of his fee and issued three demerit points.
Risk and reward
When games are evenly matched, small gains from cheating can be enough to swing the result one way. This has occurred in other sports.
Sport is now a commercial product with large rewards for winning. In addition, when players are representing their country, there may be considerable pressure to win at all costs, particularly when sport plays a prominent role in the country’s national identity.
According to Smith, the Australians “saw this game as such an important game”. Here, the significance of the game and the team’s desire to win are used to justify cheating. The spirit of cricket and “fair play” were given little thought.
In his work on match-fixing, investigative journalist Declan Hill identifies several questions that may be considered when players are contemplating cheating. The importance of the game is a key factor. Prospective cheats will also evaluate whether they can win without cheating and the sanctions they risk if they are caught.
The Australian cricketers believed the game was slipping away from them. They either did not think they would be caught, or were not deterred by the possible sanctions.
Leading by example
In several cases of cheating, it has been senior players that have induced their younger teammates to cheat.
Two former cricket captains, South Africa’s Hansie Cronje and Pakistan’s Salman Butt, both recruited younger, less experienced players in their attempts to manipulate cricket matches. Similarly, Bancroft is at the start of his Test career and appears to have been influenced by others in the team.
Rather than ensuring fair play, Smith contrived to break both the game’s laws and spirit. Worryingly, it was not just Smith and Bancroft, but a group of senior players who were initially involved.
The players will have evaluated whether it was morally right to cheat and decided that winning was more important. While not a “crime” in the traditional sense of the word, the premeditated nature of these actions increases the level of deception and subsequent outrage surrounding the decision.
The event calls into question not only the behavioural integrity of those involved but also more broadly the moral integrity of the environment in which they function. This is an environment that leaves players viewing ball-tampering on this scale as a viable match-winning strategy.
Smith’s role, as captain, has often been described as the second-most-important job in Australia (after the prime minister). It is for this reason that the Australian Sports Commission has called for him, along with any members of the leadership group or coaching staff “who had prior awareness of, or involvement in, the plan to tamper with the ball”, to stand down or be sacked.
The plot to tamper with the ball was a clear attempt to cheat and has brought the spirit of cricket into question. The implications of being caught cheating or significance of the action were overruled in favour of an outcome: winning a match.
Such actions demonstrate the short-term focus players can have in the moment, ignoring the magnitude of their decisions. In this case, the fallout will be far greater than any punishment the sport will hand out.
Keith Parry, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management, Western Sydney University; Emma Kavanagh, Senior Lecturer in Sports Psychology and Coaching Sciences, Bournemouth University, and Steven Freeland, Dean, School of Law and Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University
A fierce bidding war is under way for the rights to stream and broadcast cricket for the next five years. The price is expected to reach A$1 billion, almost double the previous deal. Media companies are facing stiff competition because increasing viewer numbers are luring social media websites and other platforms into the race to host this content.
The price for rights keeps going up even though the Nine Network is losing money on its cricket coverage and Seven’s CEO Tim Worner has stated recent price increases for sports rights “are not sustainable”.
The Big Bash League, which is also broadcast internationally, is a huge driver behind the new rights deal. The new players interested in the streaming rights include telecommunications companies like Optus and Telstra, social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter) and Cricket Australia itself, which has its own website and app. This is on top of the traditional broadcasters like Nine and Ten.
Sport is key for broadcasters as they can attract advertisers with the promise of viewers who are watching live. Social media platforms and other websites want to lure viewers onto their platforms to discuss the games. Streaming platforms and telcos are trying to appeal to customers with access to exclusive content.
Other sporting codes have recently been through this bidding process, and the deals they have struck hint at what is to come for Cricket Australia.
The AFL media rights, which started last season and run through to 2022, were sold for A$2.5 billion. This is more than double the previous A$1.2 billion agreement.
The value of the NRL broadcast rights, starting this year, also increased substantially from A$1 billion to A$1.8 billion.
But the AFL deal also faced a backlash from fans after it restricted Telstra to streaming just a 7-inch video of live coverage – larger screens are filled with black space. This is true even for those who buy the A$89 subscription to the AFL Live app.
Fox Sports streams live full HD video as part of the deal.
New players are driving up the cost
One of the major drivers of the price of sports rights is the increase and uptake of streaming. Broadcasters want the rights to televise and stream the games, while tech companies, telcos and others are more interested in the streaming rights.
The number of people streaming the cricket has doubled in the past year, according to one Cricket Australia executive, and paid subscriptions have increased by 30%.
Last year’s women’s Big Bash League was streamed across cricket.com.au, Facebook and the Cricket Australia app, reaching 1.5 million people. This season, 47 of the matches were streamed on Mamamia, a lifestyle website aimed at women.
Social media platforms want live sport to attract large crowds that will then use the platform to discuss the event. Twitter has a deal to stream Major League Baseball games (and formerly had one with the National Football League).
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described sport as “anchor content”. In other words, it will encourage people to watch more video on Facebook.
In addition to social platforms, Telstra and Optus have been competing with each other by offering exclusive content. Telstra holds AFL and NRL streaming rights, and also has a TV service, giving customers access to various content including sport.
And after all that, we get to the traditional broadcasters. Ten, now owned by US network CBS, will be unlikely to walk away from the success it has had with the Big Bash League.
Nine’s CEO, High Marks, has stated that the network also needs to have streaming as part of the sports rights.
We have seen Seven recently undertake a hybrid mode with its coverage of the Olympics and Australian Open tennis. The broadcaster offers a premium paid tier alongside its free streaming. This mode has created tension between free-to-air broadcasters and Foxtel, with requests for the government to remove the anti-siphoning rules that prevent pay TV bidding for particular sports.
Foxtel is currently not involved in broadcasting domestic cricket, but it is likely to be part of new negotiations. The government has awarded Fox Sports a A$30 million grant to support the coverage of women and niche sports. If nothing else, Fox Sports could seek to pick up the rights to women’s cricket, including the Big Bash League, which has had only a small percentage of games broadcast.
Cricket Australia has previously noted that media rights make up as much as 80% of its income. Whatever deal is struck will have a huge impact not just for the professional players, but for the grassroots as well.
Cricket Australia will want to get the most for its rights, but needs to make sure not to impact grassroots participation and attendance. This was one of the side effects in the United Kingdom when pay TV providers secured exclusive rights to broadcast the cricket.
There is a huge opportunity here for Cricket Australia to advance the way in which the game is delivered to all screens. But, as we can see, the changing media landscape means it needs to balance the needs of many stakeholders.
How Australians watch cricket on screens in the future could depend on what happens with the Nine Network’s current discussions with Cricket Australia over the 2018-23 media rights.
UBS media analyst Eric Choi said the current deal costs Nine about A$100 million a year but generates only A$60 million to A$70 million in gross revenue.
Choi said the network should either ask for access to more content at no additional cost, or step away from its long association with cricket.
The ramifications of Nine’s decision could be broad, impacting not only its potential revenue and viewers, but also participation rates among Aussies playing grassroots cricket.
Cricket’s current standing
The current media rights deal for cricket includes the Nine Network and Network Ten. Nine has the rights to international tests, one-day internationals and T20 international games played in Australia, whereas Ten has the rights to the Big Bash League (BBL).
The league also has excellent crowd attendance, having recently ranked 9th in the world’s top-attended sports leagues.
Based on the BBL’s success and the increases seen in the new media rights for the Australian Football League (AFL) and National Rugby League (NRL), Cricket Australia will want to see an increase in the bidding for its rights.
This is particularly relevant if Cricket Australia still relies as heavily on these rights as in 2012, when it said the rights accounted for 60%-80% of the total annual income.
But can the media rights continue to increase with the current unstable media landscape?
The current media landscape
Ten has said it expects its revenue to be “above the 1.2% increase” it outlined in February this year. Yet it will still need to undertake a “significant focus” on a corporate cost-cutting program and profitability as a priority.
With FTA broadcasters under financial pressures, any increase in new rights will require new stakeholders.
Foxtel currently shows international cricket matches played overseas, but does not have local coverage rights. If it could gain local cricket rights, this would further strengthen Foxtel’s sports offering of AFL, NRL, A-league, V8 Supercars, and many international sports.
Australia’s anti-siphoning regulation could prevent Foxtel completely dominating the cricket media rights. But this list is expected to be trimmed further by the government this year, furthering opening up the sports media battleground for pay television in future rights deals.
The future for digital rights
Digital rights will also be a major consideration with the new cricket media rights. While most would be looking at Telstra and Optus, there have been new players in this area who may also wish to place a bid.
Currently Cricket Australia has the Cricket Australia Live app which allows users to pay a subscription (A$30 per year or A$5.99 a day) to gain access to live streaming of games, but the new rights could also see this change.
Optus may continue its affiliation with cricket. It recently become the official mobile media partner of Cricket Australia, and principal sponsor of the Melbourne Stars Big Bash League team. Customers can access cricket content via the Optus Sports app, which also includes Optus’ recently acquired English Premier League.
Twitter has had success with broadcasting the US National Football League (NFL) and the Melbourne cup last year. This year it signed a two-year deal with the US National Lacrosse League. Twitter may consider its interest in a global sport like cricket.
Amazon, which recently launched its Prime Video service in Australia, could also be a contender. This year Amazon won the rights for NFL Thursday night matches. It paid US$50 million for ten games, five times the price paid by Twitter last year. Amazon may look at the cricket as another potential global sport to add to its catalogue.
The impact on the viewing experience
Can you “slice and dice” too much? This is a question being asked in the US by CBS chief executive Les Moonves with regard to the NFL.
Adding another stakeholder to cricket will impact the viewers’ experience. This year the new AFL media rights created some frustration linked with the way the rights had been negotiated, particularly the digital rights.
Telstra, the digital rights holder, is restricted by its agreement to limit live match videos to a 7-inch screen size. Highlights and replays are available in full-screen size 12 hours after the match ends. (Foxtel, meanwhile, can stream the games full-screen.)
This change has outraged some fans who paid the A$89 subscription fee for the AFL Live app. Because of the screen size restrictions, Telstra users with a large phone or tablet have a large amount of black space on their screen.
Some Australians are being creative in working around the restrictions.
Media coverage and participation
The media rights for sport can be looked at far more broadly than solely the coverage of the game itself.
In the United Kingdom there has been ongoing debate associated with cricket’s coverage. Since the sport moved to pay-TV, there has been a decline in participation levels, which many argued is primarily due to the game no longer being broadcast free to air.
Reports of a Sport England Active People survey show a 32% drop in participation levels in people aged over 16 since coverage of cricket moved to satellite and cable TV.
There are now steps being taken to introduce a new Twenty20 tournament in the UK, built around the success of the Indian Premier League and Australia’s BBL, which had some games live broadcast in the UK during the last season.
This is an interesting case study for Cricket Australia, which only last year announced cricket as “No 1 as the current top participation sport in Australia”.
Any changes to the rights that impact the percentage of Australians with access to the coverage, could also see a decline in participation based on the UK experience.