That Sky deal: how ECB backed themselves into a corner

Click to follow
The Independent Online

By close of play in the latest, long-running broadcasting rights saga, the England and Wales Cricket Board had nowhere to turn. The reason for the lack of space in which to manoeuvre had little to do with the negotiations of the past six months, but was to be found in 2002. That was when the television contract and thus the financial future of English professional cricket were substantially decided, and Sky Sports became broadcast kings of the cricket world.

The game's administrators probably wanted to award the contract for live coverage to a terrestrial station, preferably the BBC, if only to avoid another round of widescale abuse, which if inflicted on man rather than organisation would lead to charges. But their negotiators also had to keep their eyes on the bottom line and that invariably had more noughts on it when the cheque was being written by the satellite johnnies.

In the horrible event, BBC TV, perhaps cricket's natural home, never entered negotiations, did not bid a single penny to screen any ball bowled in any competition between 2006 and 2009. Wherever cricket was going, it was not going home. The prospect went down the plughole more than three years ago when it was announced that Channel 4 had renewed the rights they had won in 1999 almost by stealth, without any bidding process. The BBC were decidedly miffed and have cold-shouldered cricket since.

That left Channel 4, the current holders, as the only interested terrestrial party for live rights. Channel 4 played a canny game as they have done since entering the arena in the late Nineties. It is acknowledged that they have been good for the game but they have been making it clear for a while that it has also lost them a packet, some £7m a year. Channel 4, therefore, did not bid for the seven Tests played in two series that have become the staple of an English season.

Nor did they tender for any limited-over internationals. It is worth bearing in mind that one-dayers have been appearing live more or less exclusively on satellite television since 1999 and nobody has made much of a fuss. Yet a sound argument can be mounted to suggest that the one-day game appeals much more to the young people whose access rights were suddenly being defended so robustly when the results of the negotiations were declared on Wednesday.

Channel 4 wanted only the second Test series in each of the four summers, consisting of either four or five Test matches, with all other live cricket on Sky. This would have reduced the overall rights sum by more than £70m, or 30 per cent, over four years - because of the lower sum Channel 4 were bidding and because Sky's offer without total exclusivity was more than correspondingly reduced.

So, the ECB rejected a package which (together with radio and mobile phone rights) would have brought them something under £160m for one that will probably yield £220m. The resulting anguish that the game might become marginalised was predictable and did not surprise Giles Clarke, chairman of the ECB's marketing committee, who headed the rights talks.

Most of the opprobrium was reserved for the fact that the deal as struck would allow counties to squander the money they receive from the ECB (some £1.2m a year, possible only because of television rights) on indifferent players who happen to have passports permitted under EU regulation - so-called Kolpak players - and are keeping local boys out of the game.

There is something in this, as Clarke is aware, although it did not stop him calling it "emotive crap". The difference in offers amounted to much more than paying a few stumblebum professionals.

Clarke, also the chairman of Somerset, said: "This issue is being addressed by performance-related payments, part of which is that counties have to field players who are available for England. At Somerset, apart from the overseas players we are allowed, we will never sign a Kolpak player."

Within the ECB there was a resigned air, but a realisation that it was a risk. One said: "When you're on the precipice and deciding whether to jump you can sometimes land safely against the odds."

The Professional Cricketers' Association had no official comment until it had assessed all the options but was coming round to the nowhere-to-turn thinking.

It was Channel 4 who were annoyed last week. They revealed how much higher their cricket audiences were than Sky's and poured statistical scorn on Five's plans to show a highlights programme at 7.15pm each playing day. The ECB hope this is a trump card; Channel 4 said they used to get a mere 800,000 viewers when their highlights were on at that time. Channel 4 also hoped "cricket does not come to regret the decision".

The final consideration in the ECB's thinking was that Sky's cricket coverage compared to that of Channel 4 is frankly dull. It has all the stars but little twinkle in its production, no sense of joie de vivre. Things could change and there is, of course, likely to be a scramble for jobs by Channel 4's commentators.

The saddest aspect is that domestic televised cricket will next summer see the last of Richie Benaud, who at 74 retires from British screens when Channel 4 retires from cricket. But the happy note is that by the time TV rights are renegotiated, the BBC will almost certainly be involved.