A LETTER warning of dire consequences of ending the Sky monpoly of cricket has been circulated to Essex members as part of the general drive by the ECB to stop Test matches being added to the list of broadcasting 'crown jewels'.
The debate on forcing certain sports events such as The Ashes to be shown on terrestrial television is due to be wound up in March this year. If Test cricket were to be listed, the income from Sky for exclusivity -- about £300 million for four years from 2010 -- will be reduced. Sports governing bodies such as the ECB have to balance income with increased exposure, and it is a tricky task.
The ECB, claiming poverty for several years, have conspicuously failed to achieve a television balance since the first Sky deal in 2006 and have spread a sob story over the media like a thick coating of strawberry jam. Ball sports such as tennis, golf and even rugby union and football know that the BBC offers greater value than can be measured in cash terms. But the real villains are the BBC and their disgraceful attitude to the national summer sport.
Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, said that the BBC again refused to bid for last year's renewal and claimed that there was no feasible way of dividing coverage between terrestrial and satellite. The BBC clearly felt their public service remit did not extend to cricket, having spent a rumoured £200 million on five Formula One seasons from 2009. The public purse is saddled with this deal until 2013.
But the BBC wheel deal is a horror story. That contract money, about £50 million more than paid by ITV for the previous five years, was agreed without any competition from another broadcaster. Without competition... the scenario that is supposed to drag prices lower not higher. And add to those millions the astronomical cost of covering Grand Prix races around the world, and one can see why Roger Mosey has much to answer for. It becomes clear why the BBC have never confirmed their price and why Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One rights holder, was "delighted" with the deal.
Mosey, an Oxford University graduate and Yorkshireman, is BBC director of sport -- soon to take charge of 2012 London Olympics coverage -- and has no real sporting background. No doubt a capable administrator and pleasant person, he has made a massive misjudgment with his spending.
Mosey does not seem to know that thousands and thousands of people play cricket in the fresh air during summer months, and millions are interested in this traditional game -- yes, even 'cool' people. So it is hard to fathom why Formula One, a very expensive international sport with only a handful of driving participants -- even allowing for two successive British champions -- is regarded as public service material often transmitted at strange times of the day from overseas.
Certainly Formula One has mass fascination, the right word. Genuine fans are far less numerous, and the viewing figures for motor racing are far from beguiling. The Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in March 2009 attracted a peak 3.7 million breakfast-time viewers at the closing stages. Those figures were very similar to the Boat Race on a Saturday tea-time, a much less costly British sporting event even if many of the student oarsmen were foreigners... Naturally the morning transmission time explains the low Melbourne figure, accentuating the poor value for BBC expenditure.
It is not only cricket lovers who must pay exhorbitant 'bundled' Sky charges to watch their sport or not at all. In football the BBC declined to spend a small sum on the rights for Scotland's European Championship qualifying campaign, which culminated in 2008 with an important match against Italy.
The ECB are trying to make out that a reduction in Sky money will have a catastrophic effect on the game, and they will make sure that the recreational game suffers most, if past history is a guide.
The Essex letter said: "Counties play a vital part in the continued success of cricket in England and Wales, and any financial pressures on this vital pillar in the national summer game would almost certainly lead to a terminal decline in standards and possible decay of cricket in England."
Note the word 'terminal'. Less satellite income might be read to mean the end of cricket, though this is only a "possible" outcome.
Essex continued: "We pride ourselves on our community engagement. We support our thriving sister organisation, the Essex County Cricket Board which is charged with the recreational and developmental aspects of cricket in the county. Our disability cricket programme has been nationally recognised and a robust plan to further develop women's and girls cricket is well advanced, and in partnership with Essex County Council and the DCSF we have a well established Playing for Success Learning Centre on site which provides a vital educational service to local schools and colleges." Threat: The disabled, schools, underprivileged and youths will bear the brunt. The emotional card.
"At Essex we installed floodlights at the Ford County Ground in 2003 - only the second permanent installation at that time. But any future investment is threatened by the recommendations of the flawed findings of the David Davies Advisory Panel report into Free to Air Listed Events." Threat: Future upgrading might be put on hold... or might not.
"The recommendation that live coverage of the Ashes home Test series is protected for free to air broadcasters is not a scenario that anyone wanted - not cricket, nor any of the terrestrial broadcasters. Yet it has become a recommendation, made without consideration to the financial implications, which could damage cricket's delicate eco-system." That is not true. There are many people who would like Ashes to be reserved for terrestrial.
"Without the income levels we receive from ECB then the county staffs, the county investment and in some cases the county existence would be put at risk. There has been much nonsense written about county cricket wages. The average for a county player in the domestic game is less than £47,000 a year - the sort of wage a player would be paid per week at some Premiership soccer clubs. The amount of income spent on players' wages is around 27 per cent which again is not comparable with other sports. The counties are also 18 centres of excellence which offer cricketers the chance to better their careers." The mention of Premier League football is a reminder that football matches are spread around through satellite and terrestrial.
"The potential damage of listing the home Ashes Test series is incredibly serious for the health of our sport. Initial indications by independent rights consultants have suggested a reduction in ECB income of at least £100 million over a four-year period." This can only be a ballpark figure, independent or not, but there will be financial damage. It underlines the failure of the BBC under Roger Mosey.