Australian cricket’s wide open broadcast rights future will be underlined when the Twenty20 triangular series is split across free-to-air and pay television broadcasters because its conception took place after the soon-to-expire current deals were inked in 2013.
While Channel Nine will air the first three matches of the tournament between Australia, England and New Zealand in Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne, Fox Sports will be the only network airing the remaining matches on the other side of the Tasman, including the tournament final at Eden Park in Auckland on February 21.
Viewers in Britain will also face a somewhat disjointed broadcast arrangement, with BT Sport to air the matches in Australia and Sky Sports to take over for the New Zealand leg. This reflects the deal struck by BT last year to air all televised cricket played in Australia, whereas Sky retain the rights to matches played in New Zealand.
Fox Sports’ broadcast of the pointy end of the series beginning in Australia may be part of a pre-existing deal, but it is a harbinger of the future, as the subscription television carrier is likely to be a key player in the next round of broadcast deals as both Nine and Ten look to retain cricket’s popular place on their networks while also trying to find ways to balance the growing cost of the rights. Official meetings with interested parties are set to begin this week after plenty of less formal discussions in the corporate hospitality areas of Ashes and Big Bash League venues over the past two months.
Five years ago Cricket Australia, led by their general manager for media rights Stephanie Beltrame, was able to generate genuine competition for the rights to the game for the first time since Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket breakaway. Ten, then desperate for high rating content after a string of failed shows, put in a A$500 million bid for the rights, forcing Nine to match that figure including a commitment to fund CA’s nascent digital arm to the tune of A$40 million.
Ten then took the rights to the then unknown quantity of the Big Bash League for A$20 million a season over five years, a figure that is now seen as a huge win for the network, which was recently refinanced by the American broadcasting giant CBS. Conservative estimates for the BBL and WBBL have the tournament doubling in season-by-season value, with the prospect of more games being added to the calendar and more made of the finals series.
However, both networks are thought to be looking for ways to balance the value of the rights with their mounting cost, with Fox Sports looming as a likely option to add financial heft to the deals. At the same time the pay TV operator is eager for cricket, having lost a significant part of its summer programming when CA awarded the BBL to Ten without giving Fox Sports the opportunity to bid – so important did the governing body deem the goal of free-to-air audiences for the tournament.
Though some analysts have suggested that Fox Sports would require a significant exclusive component of cricket to sign on, the network would also find the ability to sell any simulcast matches on an “ads free” basis, as it does for events such as Australia’s home rugby union internationals and major AFL fixtures. At the same time CA would be hesitant to place too much of the game behind a paywall, mindful of how cricket’s English audience has shrunk over the past 13 seasons, irrespective of the rich bounty paid for the UK domestic cricket rights by Sky.
James Sutherland, the CA chief executive, has said that any future deal with Fox Sports would have to suit the wider interests of the game. “They’ve always been heavily involved in cricket, but they’ve invested in overseas cricket more so than domestic cricket,” Sutherland had said earlier this month. “They started the BBL the first two years, they’ve supported our domestic one day competition and did a very good job when they were partners there.
“The question mark now is how much do they want, what do they want and what are they interested in. While we understand they may be interested, it is then a matter of how that fits with everything else. Clearly the observation I’d make right now is that cricket’s blessed to have all of our valuable content on free-to-air television and two partners in Nine and Ten who do it in their own special way and both attract huge audiences and are extremely professional and care a lot about their production of cricket.
“We’re in a really good position, hopefully the product is still sought after by them and others as well.”