The links between television and the games’ growth cannot be understated

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The Kerry Packer legacy lives on today. Photo: Daily Telegraph

Last Wednesday marked 40 years since the Kerry Packer circus revolutionised the game forever. In many ways, Packer and Channel Nine are in part responsible for cricket as we know it today: flashy, colorful, high octance and perhaps most importantly, giving players the opportunity to accrue wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The television rights for the IPL are so expensive that broadcasters in Australia, who have already outlaid a great deal of cash for home test matches and the month-long BBL bonanza, simply cannot afford them. Elsewhere, in countries such as the UK, New Zealand and even the United States, you’ll need to pay a pretty penny for a pay tv subscription to gain access to the marvels of a Rising Pune Supergiant runchase, or to see a young, uncapped Indian spinner being blasted to all parts of the ground by Virat Kohli, much to the delight of an adoring crowd.

The point here is that television, and its vast riches, rule cricket and has done so for some 40 years now. The IPL, BBL and every other t20 franchise tournament around the globe would be nowhere without the revenue generated through exorbitantly priced television rights deals negotiated between cricket boards and broadcasters. Take away the popularity of the shortest form though, and those television rights would be worth a duck egg. Packer, gifted with a once in a generation business mind and the kind of stubbornness that would rarely see him fail to close a deal with favourable outcomes for Nine, identified 40 years ago that the fan should be the television networks biggest priority because without them, he would be at a loss and, though this wasn’t his modus operandi, so would cricket.

So he got to work designing a competition that would suit television and benefit his media empire. Shortly after losing out on securing the rights to Australian test cricket in the 1970’s, he realised that the game was falling behind. Television audiences were down and, for a businessman as sharp of wit and money obsessed as Packer was, saw to it that these circumstances be rectified.

Limited-overs cricket was soon conceived, a format that promised to maximise viewership through its television friendly sessions of play. Unlike a Test match, fans could park themselves in front of the TV and take in a game in just a few hours, rather than having to wait five days for a result to eventually be reached. This made perfect business sense. Nothing would hook the viewer in more than a game featuring multiple flashpoints that reaches a crescendo shortly before tea time. It was a television goldmine, but further tinkering was still required.

Not yet content with the outcomes of his newly formed competition, Packer and his associates at Nine decided they needed to try something rash, something that would completely change the complexion of cricket and dramatically increase viewing numbers to a level that would sustain profitability. They achieved this by introducing white balls, coloured clothing, floodlit cricket and, perhaps most notably, by giving players rock star paychecks to secure their signatures and tie them down to World Series Cricket. To this day we are still seeing large sums of money lure players away from their commitments at county and international level. Ben Stokes was payed 1.7 million pounds at the last IPL auction and missed two matches for England against Ireland just over a week ago, as did Jos Butler and Chris Woakes. They chose instead to stay on with their IPL franchises, a contentious decision but one that is becoming less so as a result of the regularity with which it now occurs.

It is quite clear that the old school values and practices Packer introduced all those years ago as part of his master plan still live on in the t20 age. He was well before his time in this regard, which probably explains why many believed he was the godfather of cricket and the games’ most influential figure. But we shouldn’t overlook what allowed the humble ‘Supertest’ to develop into the world renowned one-day phenomenon that is still in operation today. The links that can be drawn between what made the Packer empire tick, and what is currently allowing the T20 format to flourish and reach the untapped markets, are there for all to see.

Television is, of course, cricket’s single greatest asset and the ECB must realise that the wealth boards around the world have made from T20 has not been gained through sponsorship’s and ticket sales, but through broadcast rights. If they take one lesson from Packer and the success he had, it is this: cricket fans of all classes, as well as those with only a rudimentary understanding of the game, must be exposed to the sport on a regular basis otherwise it will ultimately fail in its pursuit of increasing revenue and garnering interest amongst the general population. Whether this is achieved through airing it on terrestrial television, or by selling subscriptions at a low cost to the owners of smartphones and/or tablets on an app dedicated to county cricket, one thing is certain – Sky can no longer hold the monopoly. For far too long cricket lovers have been forced to pay through the nose to watch Alastair Cook open the batting for England, or to see up and comer Mason Crane master his craft at Hampshire. If not, they might catch a short glimpse of the days play on Channel Five’s one hour highlights package. What this has achieved though is not of benefit to the ECB, nor the marginalized supporter base. How can the game grow if up to two-thirds of the population cannot access it?

While Packer did not have to co-exist with Pay TV in the 1970’s, he still understood that if nobody is tuned-in, the product is worthless to corporate investors or sponsors and will eventually die off. That is the direction the ECB is headed. And that is why they must ensure the new city-based competition is made available to all audiences on terrestrial television. If the fan, or the channel surfer looking for some entertainment over dinner, is not aware that a game between London and Southampton is on because it has been hidden behind a pay-wall, then the outcome for the ECB is an obvious one: the tournament will not earn enough money to continue operation and will be worthless to television broadcasters, which, as we know, play an enormously influential role in the game’s popularity. It’s a loss-loss situation for the ECB.

When the BBL came into existence six years ago, Foxtel, Australia’s number one Pay TV service, held exclusive rights to the tournament. After a brief period of success during the opening season, interest began to fade, signaling the end to a short lived honeymoon period where, despite disappointing viewership figures, CA caught a glimpse of what this league was capable of. In 2013, the rights were secured by free-to-air television network Channel 10, and the potential CA saw in its brief vigil on Pay TV was finally realised. Since its transition to the FTA network, the league hasn’t looked back and interest continues to peak. It is any wonder it took CA close to a decade to realise that making the Big Bash available to just over 50 percent of the population would mean it would struggle for an audience. You have to question whether changing it from a state based competition to a tournament played between contrived and bizarrely named city teams made any difference whatsoever, or whether it was purely the fact that the whole of Australia now had a means by which to watch it. Common sense seems to get thrown out the window a lot these days by cricket boards when it comes to growing the game.

The counter argument to all of this is constantly repeated by cynics: “If the competition is worth the same amount on Pay TV as it is on FTA, what incentive does the ECB have to offer it to a terrestrial network? The answer to this is, of course, dependent on how you define worth. Sure, the monetary value of the television rights might well be equal no matter who purchases them, but its worth to the viewer decreases dramatically when hidden behind a pay-wall. And without an audience, the television rights will not appreciate in value nearly as much as they could if it was televised for free. Just like interest in theater would decline if there was to be a sudden hike in ticket prices, or if certain blockbuster movies were only screened in a select number of cinemas. This is what the ECB is doing – confining it to the households of a small minority, effectively reducing how much it can make at the box-office.

When Channel Ten purchased the rights to the BBL five years ago, they payed just $100 million for a five-year deal. That value has now more than doubled, with the rights expected to be sold for around $250 million when they are put up for sale next year. Exposure counts. Packer realised this forty years ago and yet cricket boards are still in the dark over the fruits of free-to-air television. The T20 game is built for broadcast, just as World Series Cricket was during the 1970’s, so why can’t it be a driver of growth?

Some may say that by taking this approach we risk selling out the game and turn it into something no more attractive or unique than a Wednesday night soap-opera. But the ECB must stop stalling and take a risk that will see them rejoin the pack of cricketing boards who have welcomed the broadcast of T20 on FTA with open arms and reaped the rewards.

Ballr Cup shows there’s still merit in the tri-series system

This week, delegates from more than 50 cricketing nations will gather at Edinburgh to discuss the game’s most pertinent issues.

The ICC is considering radical changes in order to, one can only assume, increase the money-making potential of cricket’s ‘outdated’ structures.

The agenda is a fascinating, yet somewhat predictable one. Along with the rule change clichés that rear their ugly head without fail at the ICC’s annual meetings, are further money-making schemes for an avaricious governing body overawed by plutomania.

The T20 World Cup is set to be played biennially, clogging up the cricketing calendar in what appears to be an attempt to phase out fixtures between nations with little commercial appeal. More importantly, it’s a proven money-spinner – a win-win situation for the ICC.

Meanwhile, Test cricket will be gifted context and expansion through a two-tier system, giving the likes of India, Australia and England greater power and exposure, in case they didn’t have enough already.

This elitist mindset will strangle the life out of cricket in the lesser nations, allowing domestic T20 leagues to grow and dominate the cricketing landscape. It will also broaden an already significant gap in standard between the first and the supposed ‘second tier’ sides (Sri Lanka, West Indies and Bangladesh to name a few).

Once a financially unstable team with limited resources finds their way down into the second tier, they’re destined to remain. After all, these countries will garner substantially less revenue than the top tier sides.

What a grand plan by a board whose mandate, if only by a matter of principle, is to grow the game, particularly in those nations where cricket is in a state of relative atrophy. Contradiction is yet another example of the self-serving, money-hungry mindset of the ICC that continues to be a blight on, and make a mockery of, cricket’s governance. But I digress.

The only promising topics are the potential changes to DRS and the revamping of one-day cricket.

As you’ve no doubt heard, the ICC have proposed a 13-team one-day competition played over a three-year period, where each nation plays a three-match series against every other country, culminating in a final between the top two sides.

An inherent issue of 50-over cricket is context and relevance, or lack thereof. Too often are bilateral one-day series tacked on at the back-end of a tour after the Test series and T20s – both domestic and international – have reached a climax and endowed the summer of cricket with a sense of significance and excitement.

Consequently, the one-day series is overshadowed, met with waning interest and suffers from a muted significance.

Take last summer for example. India toured Australia for the second time in as many years for a five-match one-day series following Test matches against New Zealand and the West Indies, as well as the fifth edition of the Big Bash League.

There were no viable grounds for India’s tour other than revenue garnered from a large television rights deal that follows India around regardless of their destination.

T20 is the zeitgeist that dominates the cricketing landscape and sustains relevance for the next generation; Test cricket is the stalwart whose nostalgic qualities will forever hold a place in our hearts. For the moment though, one-day cricket is an afterthought, struggling for a consistent narrative outside of the years of the World Cup, and to a lesser extent, the Champions Trophy.

The ICC’s new proposal may remedy this, and any other redundancies that are omnipresent in one-day cricket currently. They have mooted some promising amendments to the current one-day blue print that will go a long way towards sustaining or improving its profile.

Its structure will transcend the full-member boundaries by incorporating three associate nations – Ireland, Afghanistan and one other decided by the ICC World Cricket League.

It will also give rise to a points table, with the win-loss record of a side contributing towards seeding for the World Cup.

England are currently doing their part to spruce up the summer of cricket and inspire excitement and anticipation of one-day cricket. They are midway through a super-series with Sri Lanka, where points are accrued across all three formats. The same system will be followed when they meet Pakistan later this year.

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, or have indeed been following routine sleeping patterns, you would have heard the Ballr Cup, brought to you by Cycle Pure Agarbathies, has been played and won by Australia.

Sure, the dual sponsorship reeks of vested interests and over-commercialisation, but the quality of cricket played over the past month exhibited why tri-series are far less monotonous than a bilateral series, especially one played out in the dying stages of a cricketing summer.

The tour to the West Indies showed us there is still life in the grand old scheme brought to fruition during the World Series Cricket years of 1979-80. Kerry Packer championed the idea in order to exploit what he saw as greater interest in a series whose denouement is a final. Sound logic.

Bilateral one–day series are at times repetitive, and are quickly fraught with disinterest as the same opposition turns out on five or more occasions across different venues. There is no climax, no zenith by which to be reached.

If exclusivity is to be created, the number of fixtures in a bilateral series must be reduced. Sides must not play each other in one-day series every year like we have seen over the past couple of summers with India and Australia. That way there is a sense of anticipation and excitement when a team tours for a one-day series.

Tri-series, on the other hand, contain a persistent narrative, much like the World Cup, Champions Trophy and the BBL. Batsmen are tested against two different bowling line-ups, vice versa for bowlers, there’s a points table to gauge success and failure, and bonus points to reward an appreciable victory.

Success requires adaption in a tri-series, to both conditions and the opposition. Enterprise is scarcely lacking in bilateral tournaments. We saw Australia chop and change between the spin of Nathan Lyon and Adam Zampa and the pace of Nathan Coulter-Nile and Mitchell Starc depending on the opposition and the venue to good effect in the Caribbean.

In fact, one could go as far as saying that the Ballr Cup was more intriguing than a Shane Warne love triangle, which, actually, isn’t really saying much at all.

In a month where the federal election, Wallabies-England and the major football codes took the headlines and centre stage, the West Indies tri-series held its own. One-day cricket still has a pulse; its future well and truly depends on its treatment.

Stand-alone tri-series have become as frequent as an estranged cousin you see every five years over Christmas dinner. They’re sporadic, appearing only to fill a void in the cricketing calendar. But they need to become more frequent if one-day cricket is to escape the cycle of condemnation and be given time in the sun for fans to sing its praises.

The only cynical connotation attached to the recently concluded tri-series pertains to its timing. At certain stages, it felt like an entrée to a three-course meal consisting of looming attractions such as the CPL and a Test series against India (their first visit to the Caribbean since the West Indies infamously pulled out of a tour in 2014).

One-day cricket mustn’t be pigeonholed, or it will begin to stagnate. Instead, it should act as the intermediary between Test match and T20 cricket, and be marketed accordingly to guarantee its longevity.

Presentation is everything when it comes to the success of one-day cricket, the tri-series has proven to be an effective tool for maintaining a congruence with the shortest and longest forms of the game. If there are no better alternatives, long may it continue.

Originally published at http://www.theroar.com.au/2016/06/29/ballr-cup-shows-theres-still-merit-in-the-tri-series-system/