As usual, cricket twitter is in uproar. This time, the debate rages over free-to-air (FTA) TV coverage, and it's impact on cricket's following. In this piece, I'll try and cut through some of this noise, offer up some analysis as to whether FTA can save cricket, and then offer my totally unrealistic solution.
First, why is this series on Channel 4, and not Sky Sports, who are the usual home of English cricket? My best guess is that Sky are saving up to bid for the Ashes, which were last time shown by BT Sport, who were also interested in the India-England series. For more on how Channel 4 came to get the rights, I would recommend this piece from the editor of The Cricketer, Huw Tubervill, which covers the process better than I ever could.
So what to make of cricket's return to FTA? It is, initially positive. For young people who are not paying for Sky, they will have likely seen no test cricket on TV. This exposure is positive. But to what extent? The lateness of the deal has meant it has not been advertised, and only the hardcore fans are getting up at 4am. Furthermore, the generation that needs targeting, 'the young', are not always getting up by 11:30am, when the day's play finishes. Furthermore, TV is no longer the median that they use for entertainment.
While some have drawn comparisons with England's test series in Sri Lanka that was shown on Sky, and while viewing figures are slightly up, they are hardly astronomical. While they did reach non-Sky subscribers, only a small group were aged 16--34. But, given the caveats discussed above, this is hardly relevant. Cricket on FTA will not be the answer. There are two reasons for this:
Firstly, despite increasing exposure, the lack of grassroots growth reduces this impact. Children are not playing cricket in schools (even when they were open), clubs are losing money, key engagement resources, such as All Stars Cricket, are in desperate need of funding, given the losses inflicted by the pandemic. Exposure on FTA is good, without proper grassroots investment, cricket will not grow, let alone survive.
Secondly, the money provided by Sky is crucially important; it is the reason that the game survives. Sky pay hundreds of millions to show cricket, without which the ECB would not be able to do the small grassroots projects they do, and keep supporting the county game.
And, most importantly, without Sky's money, some counties would not have survived the pandemic.
This is not to say that Sky are perfect, and that no cricket should be on FTA, but just let that sink in. Without Sky's money, we would no longer have 18 counties. Their investment is key to the future of cricket, and this is where the nuance is needed. FTA is useful, but Sky's money is a necessity.
My practical solution would be Sky keeping the live action, but having the highlights on FTA. All Premier League football is behind a paywall, yet Match of the Day, the weekly highlights show on the BBC, brings in around seven million viewers. Sky should provide a short highlights package, and get it on FTA.
Get it YouTube (this is already done, but views, while decent, are unspectacular), repeated on the TV, and plaster it all over social media. This is crucial. Without taking advantage of social media, with 10 second clips, younger generations will not sit in front of the TV to watch six hours of test cricket.
Why? Because viewing habits are no longer changing, they have gone.
Disney+ and TikTok are modern entertainment, not DVDs and the BBC, let alone Blu-ray. Therefore, cricket has to get on FTA, but the solution is not to put it there in it's current form. While I question The Hundred, the ECB are right, in that kids will not be watching 'normal' play, which only gets longer, as viewing habits, and attentions spans, decrease. Quick, simple highlights packages, widely seen, is the only solution that keeps the money, but increases engagement. Then, and only then, can English, and perhaps even global cricket, receive much needed investment, and perhaps survive.
However, this is only a short-term resolution. Sky will soon start losing money, as more streaming services grow. Cricket, which is expensive, will be less appealing, and it's chances of staying on Sky will only decrease. This is especially the case, as years pass, and generations shift, older viewers, Sky's main market, will drop-off. Cricket will no longer be financially viable for Sky, and the ECB will lose Sky's money. When that happens, we are doomed.
The only way I have around that, is a radical shift. Now this will not happen. Companies are too greedy; rights too complex. But, put all of cricket, international, domestic, t20 leagues, everything, onto a dedicated streaming app. Call it CricketTV, offer one free game a month, and then charge £9.99 a month. I don't care about the details, only that ALL cricket content goes on it; make it a monopoly, and make sure there is fair distribution of the profits. Then, and only then, can English, and perhaps even global cricket, receive much needed investment, and perhaps survive.
That's my best idea. But it won't happen. So, when I'm old, and retired, spending days in front of the TV, I'll watch highlights of games long gone. Why? Because live test cricket will be long gone.