Patrick Hennessy wrote for The Telegraph recently that, as part of the Davies review of listed sporting events, The Ashes is to be re-classified so that it has to be aired on free-to-view television in England.
Following on from the recent controversy about England’s Football World Cup qualifier against Ukraine only being available via the Internet (for a fee) it seems appropriate to address the issue again.
Davies’ report is in the final stages of preparation, and there are members of his panel who feel strongly that The Ashes should be available for all.
I would argue the opposite
Undermining Sky’s contract
Quite rightly, any attempt to drag the rights away from Sky will be met with resistance. They have paid out in the region of £300million for exclusive rights to live broadcasts of England’s Tests, home and away, and will not be prepared to cede part of that to a free-to-air broadcaster.
They argue that, as noted by The Guardian’s Owen Gibson, a huge proportion of the value of the rights in that contract are related to the exclusivity of their deal, and it is one of their prime foci in driving subscriptions.
Although, in principle, amendments to the legislation to add The Ashes to the “A” list of sports covered by the protected list would not impact on existing contracts, there is still a danger that a future Minster for Culture, Media, and Sports would decide “in the public interest” that the principle could be waived.
The cost to grassroots cricket
The ECB will also argue that, since their own financial analysis shows that any free-to-air requirement would significantly reduce the value of any future contracts they could sign with broadcasters, any changes to the protected list ought to be fully costed out by the review panel.
Gibson notes that they will ask whether it would be acceptable, in the event of future contracts generating far less revenue for the game, for the hit to be felt by cricket at grassroots level and in the Women’s game, where costs are already tight and the ECB’s support vital.
The ECB put this potential cost at approximately £140million.
De-valuing other cricket
To the arguments above, I add another: why should The Ashes be so privileged?
At the very least, the availability of cricket against one nation and no others shows the continuing Anglo-centric dominance of the thoughts of both the Government and the ECB. Should series against South Africa or India, both significant powers in world cricket in the twenty-first century, be equally protected?
Already at odds with the BCCI over players involved in the IPL and the Champions League, how would this look to boards who consider their teams just as good as Australia? How are they supposed to develop any level of historical relevance to their games against England if The Ashes is privileged over them?
Don’t we have millions of Indian and Pakistani descendents living here who support the nation of their forebears when they come to play England?
Indeed, as a means of promoting cricket per se, the protecting of The Ashes could potentially risk the promotion of cricket by focusing on the promotion of The Ashes specifically.
The free market
Governments across the world still espouse the free market as the best method for establishing the price for goods and services. This is yet another example of the “West” telling the rest of the world what to do, then ignoring those strictures itself.
Indeed, it generates arguments about the format of UK Broadcasting as a whole—why do we even have “free-to-air” television? More and more people have “pay TV” in any case—more than two million people watched the 2009 Ashes on Sky, and every additional person buying the packages for this and other reasons (Premiership football, for example) is another reason why the protected list is becoming less and less relevant.
The arguments for putting The Ashes of the “free-to-air” list revolve around allowing as many people as possible to see cricket on television. Yet the ECB, who are surely a more appropriate organisation to determine how best to promote cricket as a sport than the Government, see no harm in having a contract with an exclusively “pay-TV” broadcaster. That is their right.
At the same time, the Government are effectively forcing everyone to buy a new TV (or a system that will convert their existing TV) by turning off the analogue broadcast signal.
The cost to cricket could be up to £140million over four years based on the current Sky contract.
The Davies Report needs to think very carefully about the recommendations it makes, but I would not want to see the “protected list” expanded to include The Ashes.