David Brook: Why Sky's Test deal needs to be remodelled

This is spin of a type only Ashley Giles could dream of
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The Independent Online

Does it matter that for the next four summers, it will only be possible to watch live Test cricket if you have Sky? There are reasons for not being concerned. You can always go to a friend's house; or the pub; or the office. You'll still be able to listen on the radio. And, after all, Sky have made a huge contribution to the game, especially through their overseas coverage. Remember the excitement, when England won a Test match for the first time in 17 years against the all-powerful West Indies, Viv Richards and all? Until then, the nearest we got to watching England overseas was a few snippets on the news.

But Sky's monopoly over the summer game is bad for cricket and bad for society. Over 30 million people watched the Ashes series last summer - more than half the country. We all got caught up in the excitement. But how many fewer of us would have shared in the nation's collective joy if it had not been on terrestrial television? Would so many people have cheered the team at Trafalgar Square? Would thousands of young would-be Freddie Flintoffs have taken up cricket?

Sky's £220m deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board was signed a year ago and lasts until 2009. However, it has been a matter of growing concern among cricket lovers, and the special status of Test cricket, as well as the question as to whether some free-to-air coverage of summer Test cricket should be restored, will be considered by an all-party select committee today. It will examine whether there are grounds to restructure the deal, and allow some free-to-air cricket coverage.

Over 15,000 signatures have been received by supporters of the keepcricketfree movement, showing a groundswell of public opinion against the latest ECB TV deal - one that gives Sky exclusive coverage of domestic Test matches.

Next summer, Pakistan will play England. If the current series in Pakistan is anything to go by, it will be an exciting and keenly fought contest. We have a large Muslim population. How disappointed supporters of both teams will be if they are unable to watch Kevin Pietersen taking on Shoaib Akhtar, or Steve Harmison bowling at Inzamam-ul-Haq, because they can't afford Sky's annual subscription.

Since the ECB's formation, we have seen central contracts introduced and a national academy established, two factors behind England's success. That, though, was under a previous administration, led by Lord MacLaurin. He also oversaw the highly satisfactory TV deal shared between Sky and Channel 4.

Unfortunately, the latest ECB administration cannot make the same claims. We had the farce of the World Cup in 2003; and now there's a deal which, while apparently providing a large sum of money for the game, does nothing to promote cricket to millions of enthusiasts. It was allowed to negotiate whatever deal it thought best for cricket, despite earlier Government assurances that at least some summer Test cricket should remain free-to-air, assurances which have been shamelessly ignored.

More than half of the money to be paid by Sky will go to the counties. When you consider that the deal was negotiated by a county chairman, the argument that it is in the best financial interests of the game looks a little tenuous.

We are told, none the less, that it is a "done deal", that to unravel it would cost millions. This is spin of a type that Ashley Giles could only dream of. There is plenty of precedent to change things, if there is public and political desire to do so and if there is a spirit of co-operation between the parties involved. When the Irish Football Association sold the rights exclusively to Sky to cover its team's matches, there was a national outcry in Ireland, a meeting was convened by Bertie Ahern with Sky Sports and a compromise was reached. More recently, the Australian and Indian governments have intervened to ensure that cricket is kept free-to-air when broadcast deals had already been signed.

We have been told that the deal is "free and fair". Again, I disagree: the whole point about the deal is that it has been structured to deny competition. Quite a large proportion of money paid by Sky was only on the basis that no other TV channel would be allowed to screen any live cricket. And if you think that the screening of cricket live in our cities' parks, as happened last summer, will not be permitted by Sky, the deal really cannot be described as free, or fair.

That is why I will be arguing strongly that a resolution can and should be found and that, if everyone is prepared to be sensible and to compromise, it can be done easily, without recourse to the law courts and in a way that benefits everyone. If, however, interested parties are stubborn and greedy, we will have to seek the involvement of the European Commission, who have shown a willingness to get involved in sporting matters where they don't feel there is enough competition.

There is a long tradition of Test cricket being enjoyed during the summer by everyone, young and old. It is a national institution, like warm beer and Richie Benaud. It is telling that he, at least, has no truck with this deal, by refusing to commentate on satellite TV. We are selling everyone short if we don't fight to keep cricket free!

David Brook is an ex-director of strategy, marketing and sport for Channel 4 (1998-2003). He brought Test cricket to Channel 4 in 1999 and negotiated an extension to the original contract in 2002, without which there would have been no free-to-air coverage of this summer's Ashes. He is now CEO of Optimistic Entertainment, a digital TV producer/broadcaster.

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