Cricket: pounds 103m TV deal heralds a new era

The England Cricket Board have ended their traditional link to the BBC in favour of a brave new world.
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The Independent Online
WHEN THE England and Wales Cricket Board yesterday announced television agreements with Channel 4 and Sky Sports to cover all major cricket matches in the country for the next four years, it not only signalled its intent to take the sport into a new era, but demonstrated the changing role of television in British sport. The deal with Channel 4 in particular - which will see Saturday play in Test matches broadcast on a new digital station, Channel 4B, so as not to interrupt Channel 4's racing coverage - demonstrates how broadcasters are already planning to exploit the new age of digital television.

Coverage of all but one home Test match, from 1999 to 2002 inclusive, will be screened by Channel 4, while Sky Sports will provide live coverage from the remaining game each summer. In addition, Channel 4 will show coverage of the Nat West trophy and increase its cricket coverage to include a weekly magazine programme. Sky will broadcast the new 45-over National League, women's cricket and the Super Cup. Between them, the two broadcasters have paid pounds 103m for rights to the sport, and they have a reciprocal agreement to show highlights of fixtures they do not show live. The package as a whole marks an end to cricket on BBC television - its home for nearly 60 years - but also sees the ECB adopting an aggressive stance in modernising the game.

The ECB's chairman, Lord MacLaurin said: "The new deal is marvellous for English cricket. Channel 4 have presented a lively, invigorating approach to coverage, and we are looking forward to a strong and successful partnership."

He added: "We are sorry that our long and happy association with BBC television has come to an end but we need to relaunch cricket in a fresh and exciting way, and I am confident that Channel 4's imaginative approach can help us do that."

As well as paying for rights to show cricket, Channel 4 has also agreed to spend an additional pounds 13m on promoting the game at grass roots level and in schools. "We are committed to an extensive on and off air promotion campaign for cricket and will bring all our marketing experience to bear to develop the game," Michael Jackson, Channel 4's chief executive said. "While respecting the best traditions of the sport, our goal is to help cricket reconnect with a younger and diverse multi-cultural audience."

Yesterday's news raises several questions, not least of which are what will the deal mean for cricket, for cricket fans, and for viewers of other sports, especially racing, currently shown on Channel 4.

For cricket, McLaurin said, the deal means is available money to plough into the youth game and the women's game, as well to distribute to the counties for development programmes. It will also mean the sport is aggressively marketed, perhaps seeing the kind of increase in popularity that football has seen in recent years.

For cricket fans, the deal will mean plenty of cricket on free-to-view terrestrial television. Jackson also promised Channel 4 will take viewers "closer to the action" with more camera angles, more analysis, more statistics and more features about those involved. Jackson is yet to announce who will present Channel 4's coverage, but he said: "That doesn't mean you won't see some of the best of current broadcasters on Channel 4. He would not comment on the possibility that David Gower has been approached to be a front man.

For viewers of other sports, such as racing, Channel 4's commitment to cricket might be more worrying. Each of the four scheduled games against New Zealand next summer coincide with meetings which would normally be screened on Channel 4. Among the individual races threatened are the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, which falls in the middle of the first Test, and York's Nunthorpe Stakes, whose Thursday positioning at York's Ebor meeting clashes with the opening day of the final Test of the series.

John Fairley, the chairman of Highflyer Productions which produces Channel 4's racing, insisted yesterday that the turf product would not be affected. "All along they [Channel 4] have given us an absolute assurance that racing will be fully protected," he said. "Indeed, we are expecting that there may be some increases in racing coverage quite shortly.

"There are obviously clashes in the dates, but I am not expecting any deleterious effect on racing, even on those days." Channel 4B seems to be the answer, for those who have the technology. Welcome to the brave new world of sport.

CRICKET v RACING

CLASHES BETWEEN TEST MATCHES AND CHANNEL 4 RACING IN 1999

Edgbaston (1-5 July)

Sandown (2 July) Hong Kong Trophy

Sandown (3 July) Eclipse Stakes

Haydock (3 July) Lancashire Oaks, Old Newton Cup

Lord's (22-26 July)

Market Rasen (24 July)

Old Trafford (5-9 August)

Haydock (7 Aug) Rose of Lancaster Stakes

The Oval (19-23 August)

York (19 Aug) Nunthorpe Stakes, Lowther Stakes

Sandown (21 Aug) Atlanta Stakes

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