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30 July 2015

Cricket in Britain is under threat from its own success

English cricket is achieving great success on the field of play - but is available to watch only for a privileged few. 

By David Skelton

It’s ten years since that incredible Ashes series that captured the imagination of the nation and that enthralling Edgbaston test. So many great memories, two evenly matched teams and even the right result. I was in a packed Regent’s Park watching the coverage of the final test match and the series really captured the public imagination. Even the footage of a clearly “tired” Andy Flintoff on the open-topped bus parade the day after victory became a national cause celebre. The series reaffirmed the role that cricket has in our national life – becoming the talk of schools, pubs and workplaces.

The latest Ashes started a few weeks ago and saw the Aussies thumping us at Lords after a great England win in the first test. But who was watching? Compare the national feeling of ten years ago with the very muted sense of anticipation that preceded this year’s series. There are potentially a few reasons for this – Ashes series have become more regular and the England team now isn’t as strong as the team in 2005. But a far more important reason is, quite simply, that much fewer people are able to watch it.

The 2005 series was broadcast free to air on Channel 4, whereas this year’s Ashes and every series over the past decade has been tucked away on Sky Sports. We have to acknowledge that Sky’s coverage of test match cricket has been superb. Their commentary team is excellent, their use of technology is pioneering and they’ve broadcast coverage of overseas tests that other broadcasters were unwilling to do. But the problem remains that tucking test match coverage, and particularly Ashes coverage, away on Sky Sports, greatly limits the potential test audience. And this is reflected in the viewing figures. The peak viewing figure for the 2005 series was almost 9 million. In the last home Ashes series, the peak viewing figure was a mere 1.3 million – the live audience for the Ashes has effectively been cut by over 80 per cent. The World Snooker final in Sheffield had almost three times as many live viewers as the last home Ashes series.

Cricket needs to ask itself whether it can afford to have its audience limited in this way. Over the past few years participation in our national summer game has been declining alarmingly, with a fall from 908,000 to 844,000 in one year alone. Despite valiant efforts by the ECB, cricket in state schools is still an exception rather than a rule, meaning that the England team has become increasingly posh. Indeed, Alan Milburn was even moved to include the England cricket team as an example of slow social mobility in his recent ‘Elitist Britain’ report. The decline of pits and steelworks also led to a decline in work sponsored cricket teams in many working class towns and villages.  

As Ed Smith said in the New Statesman a few months ago, “cricket’s place in the wider sporting culture is under grave threat.” Cricket needs to go out of its way to increase its appeal and to maintain its hold on national life. That should mean its greatest showcase being available to the widest possible audience.

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Terrestrial TV coverage brings many advantages beyond larger audience share. The joy of cricket when it was on free to air TV was its ability to trap and beguile the ‘accidental’ viewer. If somebody has to actively buy a satellite dish and take out a Sky Sports subscription, the accidental viewer effectively becomes an endangered species and only confirmed cricket fans will be watching the action. It’s much less likely that kids will aspire to be like the new cricketing role models they find if they’re much less likely to watch cricket. BBC’s coverage of the FA Cup and the Six Nations and Channel 4’s Cheltenham and Grand National coverage also shows the power of cross-promotion that comes with terrestrial coverage, with plugs being thrown in on everything from Breakfast to the One Show.

The ECB would probably counter that the BBC or Channel 4 have shown little interest in bidding for test match rights since 2005, but there’s also little sign that the ECB have done much to encourage them. It’s all well and good for the ECB and the counties to take the big cheque from Sky, but what is limiting the audience doing to the long-term vitality of the game. If there is a solution that allows Sky to maintain its grip on most of the coverage but also allows terrestrial TV to be a shop window for the sport, then it should surely be considered? Cricket can no longer ignore the impact of declining viewing figures, falling participation rates and a gradual dwindling of interest in the sport. The game is one of our greatest gifts to the world and the ECB needs to take steps to ensure that cricket doesn’t become a minority interest in the land of its birth.