Cricket’s intertwined relationship with television has travelled a tempestuous path. It began tentatively in Britain in June 1938 when an England versus Australian Test match at Lord’s was transmitted by the British Broadcasting Corp. from north London over a 20-kilometer radius. Only 7,000 TV sets existed, radio being the main channel of live, mass coverage.
World War II brought a halt to the transmissions and, when cricket resumed in 1946, India was the visiting team. Amidst great excitement, the BBC, and the Marylebone Cricket Club, cricket’s governing body, resumed negotiations over the conditions for transmission. It is apparent that tensions existed.
Administrators were concerned that transmission of the whole day’s play could deter spectators from attending. The broadcaster argued that television created and maintained wider public interest in the game, to its benefit. It also wanted to be able to place its cameras and equipment in favorable positions but the relinquishing of space, which would otherwise seat spectators, did not sit well with the MCC.
As a result, the issue of how to value sport in return for live media coverage became an early point of contention.
In 1946, a compromise was reached. In return for £135 for three days of one Test at Lord’s, the BBC agreed to show no more than three hours of cricket per day, starting no earlier than 2:30 p.m.
In the immediate post-war years, cricket enjoyed record crowds, while cinema attendances also boomed. This gave rise to another concern for the MCC – that of the possibility for the rediffusion of TV footage in cinemas and on TV – which, in turn, raised copyright issues on which there was a lack of regulatory guidelines.
The number of UK TV licenses had risen to 1.5 million by 1952, and transmitters had spread throughout the country. The BBC also had other stakeholders to placate, including newspapers, which were the primary conveyor of sports news.
It was not long before it was presented with another challenge. In 1954, commercial television franchises were established which broke the BBC’s monopoly. Undeterred, it approached this new landscape with confidence, using its well-established contacts to hold-off the new competitors.
Cricket sought to benefit by negotiating increased income, but found its hands tied by a government ruling that Test cricket was considered a national event and should be made available on a non-exclusive basis. Despite commercial television’s best attempts, it lost out in 1956 to the BBC’s national construct compared with its fragmented, regional, construct. The way was paved for 40 years of the BBC’s dominant coverage of cricket, until a new era of deregulation was unleashed.
Those halcyon years, for my generation, of advertisement free, uninterrupted, free-to-air cricket, received their first jolt in Australia. There, commercial television, which began in 1956, relied on imported, mainly US, content.
A campaign to produce more local content, coupled with the advent of color transmission, created conditions for a challenge to be made to the long-established media contract to televise Australia’s home Test matches held by the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Commission. This came from Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine, which offered eight times the previous rate for the rights to broadcast, only to be rejected in favor of ABC.
Packer’s response was to set up his own World Series Cricket competition, attracting leading Australian and international cricketers. This ran for two years between 1977 and 1979, before the dire financial straits in which the Australian Cricket Board found itself led to reconciliation and an agreement that Channel Nine would be awarded exclusive rights to telecast and promote Australian cricket. Many who had supported the ACB regarded this as a sell-out.
There can be little doubt that Packer’s actions drastically changed the nature of cricket and had long-lasting effects. It secured increased remuneration for top cricketers, showed that cricket could realize greater commercial returns, and that different ways of marketing could appeal to a wider audience.
It took a further 20 years before the bond between the BBC and the English cricket authorities was severed. This was achieved based on new legislation in 1996. Under its aegis, sporting events for which full live coverage must be made available to non-subscription national UK television channels were listed. The events are determined by the culture secretary.
International cricket is not on the list and the England and Wales Cricket Board has fought for years to keep it off the list. Instead, it has entered into successive lucrative deals with pay-TV broadcaster, Sky Sports. The latest of these will extend the current 2017 to 2024 agreement until 2034, at least.
This issue is a highly emotive one in Britain that separates traditionalists from those for who cricket’s survival can only be secured by income streams from commercial partners. It is incontrovertible that significantly more – by a factor of up to 16 – viewers are attracted to cricket shown on free-to-air compared with behind a paywall. However, the local British difficulty has been eclipsed by the way in which television has been used in the Indian Premier League.
On June 12, the Board of Control for Cricket in India will conduct an auction to sell the IPL media rights for the next cycle (2023 to 2027). In recognition of today’s media landscape, these have been segregated into four bundles, covering digital, broadcast, Indian sub-continent, and rest of the world. The BCCI hopes to double the $2.6 billion generated in the previous cycle.
These are colossal sums when compared with those on offer 75 years ago, yet the correlation between the sport, corporate sponsorship, and television exposure is still powerful, with the latter expanded to include streaming by digital devices.
There are no concerns in India about live telecasts having an adverse effect on attendance but, in other countries, including emerging ones, there are competing arguments about the most effective and balanced way to achieve maximum reach to existing and potential cricketers. In this, free-to-air television still has a major role to play. It depends on appropriate funding mechanisms and harmonious relations between administrators and broadcasters being established.