Friday, 27 February 2015

Column 3, 2015 – Cricket's gateway drug

Printed in The Cricket Paper, issue 106, Friday February 27, 2015.
[Full text below]

Sunday 28 August 2005, 8.4 million people watched the climax of the Trent Bridge Test on Channel 4, breaking the record of 7.7 million set two weeks earlier at Old Trafford. The conclusion at The Oval dipped to 7.4. But then, it was a Monday afternoon.

Wonderful though the 2005 Ashes was, it only became part of the national conversation that summer because people watched it. Ordinary people. People who don’t follow cricket, much less have trenchant views about who should bat three or the importance of a four-seam attack. Normal people saw it, and got swept up in its drama.

For this very reason, Britain has listed ‘crown jewel’ sporting events, regulated by the government. There are currently 10 events from The Olympics to Wimbledon protected for live broadcast on free-to-air TV, and nine protected for highlights.

Around the millennium, amid howls of protest, the ECB campaigned to have cricket de-listed, so they could “negotiate a fair price”. They succeeded. That Monday afternoon at The Oval almost 10 years ago was the last live international cricket on UK free-to-air TV.

It’s no coincidence that those were the last England cricketers to transcend their sport. There were Freddies and KPs in every playground – I now play with and against them every week. The ECB argued that Murdoch’s money would fund grass-roots cricket. Others, that the next generation of kids won’t want to emulate Moeen Ali or Joe Root, for the simple reason that they won’t know who they are.

With grim inevitability, this is proving to be the case. A national playing survey published last year showed participation levels in cricket have ‘plummeted’. The ECB has pledged to reverse the decline with ‘new initiatives at grass-roots level’, presumably using some of the £70 million a year they get for making it inaccessible at grass-roots level.

In recent weeks the clamour to reinstate free-to-air cricket has grown. Bosses at Yorkshire and Surrey have been vocal about it in the wake of the success of The Big Bash, which is free-to-air in Australia, (though on Sky here,) as is most cricket.

This is complex stuff. If you can afford it, Sky’s coverage is excellent. And it’s doubtful there’s much appetite among free-to-air broadcasters for a sport that takes ages, and (a circular argument but a fair point) hardly anyone watches anymore. Where cricket is still free, it’s riddled with rampant commercialism and relentless advertising. There isn’t a simple answer. It’s not exclusively cricket’s problem either. This month BBC lost The Open to Sky. The Rugby Six Nations is up for renegotiation.

In the 2013 home Ashes, the highlights beat the live show. Channel 5’s highlights were seen by 1.5 million, while just 1.3 million watched live on Sky.

So ITV’s daily World Cup highlights are very welcome. And while 10.30pm is not exactly kid-friendly, the door is at least ajar for that all-important audience – the one that doesn’t yet know it’s the audience.

- ends 491 words -

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