It has been another week of firsts for English cricket, with the County Championship hosting its first round of day-night four day fixtures played with a pink ball. It is another moment of innovation for a sport that has reinvented itself successfully in the last few years with new formats and new technologies all aimed at bringing new fans into the game. But there is a bigger change brewing for the sport this week, and it's one where cricket would do well to go traditional to secure its future.
This week the ECB will be receiving final offers from the leading sports broadcasters for the rights to air cricket between 2020 and 2024. It is expected to be a bidding war between BT and Sky for the majority of the rights, something we've seen across numerous other sports. What is most interesting though is that a slice of the rights is set to be attributed to free-to-air broadcasters, with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 all bidding. However, the slice awarded is likely to be small in the grand scheme of the full rights package. It's also been reportedly set to be focused on the shorter form of the game, particularly T20 Games and the new city based T20 format that is coming. Free-to-air offers a huge opportunity, and as a long term investment in the future of the game it is one that cricket should embrace more widely than simply offering a few second tier games.
There has been no more significant cricket moment in my lifetime than the 2005 Ashes series. Considered the greatest Ashes series of all time, it represented England's return to the top tier of global cricket and the end of an era of Australian dominance. For a summer the nation was gripped by cricket, and it wasn't just because the sport itself was brilliant, it's because it was available, broadcast live on Channel 4. Having cricket available to watch for free created a huge cultural moment behind the series, with the nation rallying around the team, not unlike when Andy Murray is making a run deep into Wimbledon or the England football team is still in a major tournament (as fleeting as that may be). The result is a country invigorated by cricket, and a whole generation of future players falling in love with the game.
Since the dawn of the on-demand TV era - sports broadcast rights have become worth their weight in gold. As the only real method of guaranteeing appointment viewing live rights have seen their value increase exponentially. All of the major leagues have cashed in on this, and it's understandable that the ECB wants to do the same. But if bidding Sky and BT against each other delivers a significant chunk of cash, all rights given to free-to-air broadcasters represent an investment in the future of the sport. Every series that is shown free to air brings greater exposure to the game and more importantly takes it outside of its core audience. Cricket fans will pay to watch England play on Sky or BT, but non-cricket fans are much less likely to make the investment. The result is that it becomes much harder to reach new people and grow the core fan base. Paid TV entrenches hard core fans, free-to-air offers the opportunity for growth.
The allure of Sky and BT is strong, but the ECB must throw itself full heartedly into bringing back free-to-air broadcast, or risk the sport stagnating. T20 has been a revelation, but the excitement will wear off if watching the best in the world compete remains inaccessible. It can't just be about the flashiest form of the game either. The idea of an entire Test series shown free to air now seems impossibly far off, but it shouldn't be, because as the pinnacle of the sport it is the product with the biggest upside for capturing national attention for a full summer. Cricket has been one of the most innovative sports around, but if it doesn't fully embrace free-to-air it may find its growth limited by a ceiling of its own construction.