The possibility of Australians being without cricket broadcasts on free-to-air television this summer grew closer today as the fight between Channel Seven and Cricket Australia (CA) escalated yet again after reports last week that agreement was near.
Seven and CA have been at loggerheads for some time, with Seven CEO James Warburton describing CA as a “train wreck,” and saying “we are forced to consider all our options, including terminating the contract, and we have put them on notice.”
Seven’s owners, Seven West Media, told The New Daily today that “we are still in liaison with Cricket Australia” and could not say if the parties had come any closer to resolution.
Pulling the plug on cricket would be a remarkable decision for Seven, given that in 2018 it shot the lights out with Foxtel for a six-year, $1.18 billion deal that grabbed the sport from its long time home at Nine by doubling the broadcast rights price.
“It would be a huge step for them to take, given the history of cricket on television in Australia,” said Jack Anderson, Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne.
While Professor Anderson said Seven would be reluctant to drop cricket, the possibility had to be considered because the negotiation window was closing.
“It doesn’t look good that no agreement has been reached and there is a deadline looming next Tuesday for a [Seven] payment.”
Seven was planning to broadcast all Test matches and some Big Bash T20 this summer. Foxtel is scheduled to broadcast all of those game categories as well as all international limited-overs games.
The problem Seven faces with cricket broadcasting is twofold.
“They paid too much for the rights two years ago and last summer was disappointing [in terms of ratings] for them,” said independent media analyst Peter Cox.
“Then COVID-19 struck and no-one was prepared for that.”
There have been scheduling problems too.
“Seven aren’t happy with Cricket Australia about scheduling changes,” Professor Anderson said.
Seven’s cricket move is not the first bid to renegotiate sporting rights in the pandemic. Seven cut its rights payments to the AFL by between 12 and 13 per cent, while the NRL had to wear a rights reduction of between 25 and 28 per cent from Channel Nine.
“Given what happened with the football codes I’d be expecting Seven to want to cut 20 per cent off the rights payments,” Mr Cox said.
Seven’s position should be boosted by those previous results.
“Nine argued in its negotiations with the NRL that the lack of crowds impacted on the quality of the game for viewers,” said Jason Sternberg, senior lecturer in Media with Queensland University of Technology.
“Seven will be putting that argument but I’m not sure Cricket Australia will readily accept it,” Dr Sternberg said.
“There is talk that [because of the pandemic] all the Tests against India are going to be played in one venue,” Dr Sternberg said.
It would be surreal if the Boxing Day Test were to be played at the MCG with no crowd.” Dr Jason Sternberg
Ironically, reduced spectator opportunities for the cricket could boost Seven’s audience. “There is a chance ratings could be up,” Dr Sternberg said.
It depends where you look
But while an improvement in Test ratings would be good for Seven, that’s not the whole cricket pie.
“The Test cricket did well for Seven, but it’s been mixed fortunes with the Big Bash League. Despite some good audiences when it was on Ten, not a single session made it into Summer’s top 50 shows this year,” said David Knox, editor of the TV Tonight blog.
“This could be a factor in Seven seeking to reduce what it is forking out.”
Given the mixed results with T20, Seven could be interested in getting out of that code. “There is talk they could sell it to Ten.” Dr Sternberg said.
That would make sense, said one television insider who wants to be anonymous.
“You’d have to ask, ‘Is Cricket Australia talking to Ten because they built it up from nothing into a really great thing.”
Overall cricket is still a valuable asset for a broadcaster. “I think cricket as a sport in Australia is just as valuable as it ever was,” Dr Sternberg said.
“It’s taken a hit in the last two years because of its own actions” such as the ball-tampering scandal.
“But Cricket Australia has mounted a strong campaign to restore faith and interest in it, and I think it has been reasonably successful,” Dr Sternberg said.
“T20 has been particularly important as it brings families and kids – especially girls – to the game,” Dr Sternberg said.
“Free-to-air television coverage is very important for cricket,” Professor Anderson agreed.
“When the BBC stopped cricket broadcasts a decade ago, participation in the sport among young people went down.”