ECB to learn from Wimbledon’s success with new broadcast deal
Perhaps the biggest threat in all areas of sport is short-termism. From athletes and coaches cast aside because of a run of poor form to short-sightedness in the more business-oriented sides of the industry.
The divergent fortunes of two of the summer’s traditional sporting favourites offer up a good example: whilst Wimbledon goes from strength to strength, cricket has been stuck behind a paywall on Sky Sports. Over the last decade, tennis has become bigger in the UK, while cricket has stagnated a bit.
But from 2020, the rights situation at least will see a change as the BBC has announced that it has agreed a deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to show live cricket on English soil on free-to-air TV for the first time since the 2005 Ashes series. Back then, it was still known as terrestrial TV. How times have changed.
Sky will continue to have most of the rights to live games, but the presence of the BBC is a big part of this announcement.
It’s a big deal when the BBC acquires rights to any sport these days given the current landscape, but this isn’t just a good deal for the broadcaster. It’s a good deal for cricket. Yet, although this will be mutually beneficial, that in itself is part of the problem.
When the pay TV boom was in its biggest growth period, Sky were able to dabble in most sports, building a portfolio of riches and widening their appeal. And although it bought up plenty of tennis, Wimbledon stayed on the BBC. As a result, Wimbledon is one of the biggest events in the British sporting calendar every year, and even though the Ashes and other major cricketing events will always be a major draw, most haven’t grown as big. The reasons for that probably stretch further than just perception, and in the digital age, tennis is certainly more social media friendly than, say test cricket. But it’s hard to get away from the thought that the BBC just reaches more people than Sky do. Certainly more casual or potential fans, if not diehards.
That’s why the free-to-air broadcaster’s deal with the ECB is so important. The BBC will show highlights and some live games from a new T20 cricket tournament arranged by the federation, as well as women’s games, giving mainstream exposure to fledgling tournaments. It seems so important to the ECB, in fact, that it has even been reported that the BBC may have been outbid by others who had more money to spend on buying the rights to English cricket games, but that the lure of the national broadcaster was too great.
That, perhaps shows an admission from the ECB that they were too hasty in taking their product to commercial pay TV all of those years ago. No matter how good a job Sky Sports do in presenting their coverage, cricket is not as popular as, say, Premier League football, and as a result, they can’t have the same ‘build it and they will come’ attitude. They still need to grow the sport.
Making sure that highlights and some live games will be free to air from 2020 is an important step, and it shows that the ECB have learned from their mistake. The start of this new broadcast deal is a crucial period. With the women’s game growing already, the next few years will be vital for consolidating that, while the new T20 tournament – like all new formats – will live or die by its popularity early on.
The BBC alone, though, won’t be a panacea, though it’s certainly a positive step. The broadcaster’s reach only goes so far, but the shorter form of the game as well as its mainstream popularity will surely appeal to a social media audience, too. It’s arguably more important that the social media output hits the right notes.
In taking the Sky dollar, cricket in Britain was arguably given a short-term hit rather than a long-term strategy. But sports like cricket and tennis perhaps weren’t as secure in their popularity as they might have thought they were a decade or two ago, and as a result, it looks like cricket now need the BBC to help it regain the status it once had as a stalwart of the British summer.
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