What's it worth to win the Ashes?

England's cricketers have upstaged the Premiership's return, but are still paid much less than their footballing counterparts. Paul Newman reports

However, for all their heroic efforts, the rewards those cricketers earn still fall way behind the earnings of even moderate footballers. Andrew Flintoff is the superstar of the current England team and certainly among the best paid cricketers, yet his earnings this year are likely to be around £1m (see table).

It is reckoned that between 175 and 200 footballers make that amount in British football, while David Beckham, Flintoff's footballing equivalent, is expected to take home more than £17m this year.

Whereas Beckham's basic salary at Real Madrid is around £4.5m, Flintoff's central contract from the England and Wales Cricket Board pays a basic of £150,000 (plus £5,000 per home Test match, £7,000 per away Test, £2,750 per home one-dayer and £3,850 per one-dayer away). Taking into account a nominal salary from Flintoff's county Lancashire and an estimate of bonuses he probably earns no more than £350,000 a year on the pitch.

It is not just a lot of Premiership footballers who earn £1m a year. Crystal Palace's Andy Johnson has agreed a new five-year deal which is reported to be worth £1.25m a year.

But while Michael Vaughan and company will never match the salaries of the leading footballers their chances of cashing in on their fame have never been better since Denis Compton was chosen as the man to market Brylcreem. And for most sponsors the cricketer they value the most is Flintoff.

"Flintoff is the cricket hero that everybody - including sponsors - have been looking for since Botham," Steve Martin, who handles endorsement deals for M&C Saatchi Sponsorship said. "There's an enormous opportunity for English cricket to jump on the bandwagon behind him."

Some of M&C Saatchi's clients, which include leading names like Reebok, Orange, Carlsberg and Travelex, have already been hearing about the revitalised virtues of the country's leading summer sport.

"We do a lot of work on behalf of our clients to pinpoint sports stars who have the ability to appeal to a wider audience and we're now recommending some of the leading cricketers to them," Martin said. "We had a couple of meetings before the Ashes series where we were already starting to look more towards cricket. The sport is played at a time of the year when it doesn't compete massively with other sports and it has fantastic media coverage in this country.

"This is the first time for many years that we've seen England cricketers winning people's respect. That's a big change from the last few years. The England team are obviously playing better, but just as importantly the perception of them is better. There's much more respect for them today as athletes: they seem fitter, healthier, better organised. Those sort of things matter to sponsors. They want guys who are aspirational.

"Andrew Flintoff is head and shoulders above the others. Kevin Pietersen is interesting, but Flintoff has the looks and the charisma - and he smiles. He has a good attitude. People liked the way he consoled Brett Lee at the end of the second Test, though they also like the fact that he stuck up for himself when he was confronting Michael Clarke.

"Financially, footballers are used to bigger salaries and bigger rewards generally, so nine times out of 10 they would get a bigger deal than a cricketer. But then again there are only half a dozen footballers who would have the same national appeal as someone like Flintoff. At the moment he might expect to earn only 50 per cent of what those guys might expect from a deal, but that could well rise as time goes on."

Still, sponsors know that if sheer numbers are needed football remains the game. David Nicholas, a spokesman for O2, Arsenal's shirt sponsors, said: "Football is still the national sport in terms of the number of people who play it and watch it, either live or on television. There has undoubtedly been a resurgence of interest in cricket this summer, but in terms of participation there is no comparison with football at any level.

"When we were looking to start sponsorships one of our big objectives was to establish our brand awareness. And when you're talking about the mass market football is brilliant. The publicity we had from our first year at Arsenal, when they won the Double, was fantastic."

Not that Vodafone, one of O2's rivals, will be complaining about their exposure this summer as the England cricket team's shirt sponsors. With an average of more than two million, TV audiences for the Ashes series have been the highest in Channel 4's seven seasons covering cricket.

The peak audience during the second Test of 4.1m late on the Saturday afternoon gave Channel 4 a 28 per cent share of the TV-watching public, which was more than any other channel at that time. Channel 4's overall audience share that day of 15.1 per cent was the highest Saturday figure in its 22-year history.

In that light it seems absurd that from next summer there will be no live coverage of domestic Test matches on terrestrial TV. The ECB has sold exclusive rights to every domestic Test from 2006 until the 2009 Ashes series to Sky under a four-year contract worth more than £200m.

The deal, a substantial increase on the present fee, was struck after terrestrial broadcasters showed only scant interest. With 80 per cent of the ECB's revenue coming from television, the governing body felt it had little choice and says that Sky's rivals will be the losers.

"It's a bad time for the terrestrial broadcasters to be losing their hold on cricket," an ECB spokesman said. "People are now starting to realise that the public are genuinely excited by cricket, which makes very good TV."

Can cricket afford to turn its back on more than half the TV-viewing public? Football also sold out to Sky but, crucially, a substantial number of live games and highlights packages always remained on terrestrial channels.

The fear is that cricket may go the way of boxing, which became something of a niche sport after all its major attractions moved to subscriber channels.

However, there are those who believe that cricket's new TV deal may not be a backward step. Drew Barrand, features editor of Marketing magazine, said: "On the face of it, it would seem a bad idea to take cricket off terrestrial TV just when it's making the breakthrough, but Sky is now available to about eight million households and the deal will bring a lot of money into the game. If the cricket authorities can use that money to increase awareness and get more kids involved then it could turn out to be a good deal."

The recent "Young People and Sport" survey demonstrated the challenge facing cricket: it showed that only 13 per cent of children play the game regularly either in school or outside it. The figures for football are 25 and 37 per cent respectively.

Additional reporting by Nick Harris

Freddie v Becks: The value of a superstar

Andrew Flintoff: Overall earnings approx £1m a year

Earnings on the pitch £350,000

A basic salary of about £261,250 in 2005, plus performance-related bonuses, which could include Ashes-winning bonus of c.£80,000.

Endorsements £650,000 These include about £350,000 for a kit deal with Woodworm, about £100,000 for a corporate promotion deal with Barclays Capital, and similar amounts for a tie-up with Red Bull and his Sun column.

David Beckham: Overall earnings approx £17m a year Earnings on the pitch £4.5m

His basic salary is £4.5m, plus performance-related bonuses.

Endorsements £13.5m

Beckham is one of the most lavishly endorsed sportsmen in the world, whose deals include a three-year tie-up with Gillette worth about £3.5m a year, one with Vodafone worth £3m a year and his current kit deal with adidas worth an estimated £4m a year.