By Alison Mitchell
Women’s cricket is the big winner in the A$1.182bn dollar TV rights deal struck by Cricket Australia.
From the start of the Aussie summer later this year, every single women’s home intentional will be shown live and free-to-air on Australia’s Network Seven, as well as on the pay TV channel Fox Sports. The free-to-air element in particular is a huge step forward for the exposure of a sport that has never before enjoyed a full commitment from a television broadcast partner for its home internationals.
The Women’s Big Bash League has evolved very quickly into a marketable product thanks to the way Channel Ten broadcast games during the first two seasons. When a handful of games in the inaugural season attracted encouraging viewing figures on Ten’s equivalent of the Red Button, they moved key derby games to the main channel.
They then planned an increase in the number of broadcast games to 12 for season two, and put nearly all on the main network. The audience figures justified the move, and the game gained in popularity and profile in living rooms around the country. A total of 23 WBBL games are are now due to be shown on Seven each season, together with 43 men’s games.
Throughout all this, you can’t help but feel sorry for Channel Ten, though, who put an emphasis on entertainment, revamped the way the Big Bash was presented and commentated on, and gave the League the exposure it needed to explode into the product is it today. They have been left with nothing.
The expansion of the Men’s BBL means there are a further 16 matches in the season from 2018/19, and these will appear live solely on Fox.
The remainder of the women’s games will be live streamed by Cricket Australia, who must be credited with driving the televising of the women’s game by investing in its own live streaming over the last few years and demonstrating that there was an audience out there as a precursor to Ten showing WBBL games.
Nine, who have now lost all cricket rights after a 40-year association, showed women’s IT20s as an add-on in recent years when they were double headers with the men’s, but the women’s game had a much lower profile in Australia when Nine’s agreement was signed and women’s cricket was never a part of their main deal. As broadcast partner they could have opted to televise more women’s cricket in recent years but they were under no obligation to do so.
Despite an agreement to televise the limited-overs matches in the the women’s Ashes of 2017, Nine decided not to broadcast the historic four-day Test at North Sydney Oval – the first ever floodlit Test played by women. That had a knock-on effect for other television networks around the world, as it meant there were no host pictures for anyone else to take. Cricket Australia filled the void themselves by live streaming the match, and it was only when international broadcasters such as BT Sport in the UK were able to see the quality of the live stream, that it could be picked up and shown on TV screens on our shores and elsewhere.
Yes, there are a lot of questions being asked of Cricket Australia and its culture in the wake of the ball-tampering scandal at the moment, but in that Test match Ellyse Perry scored 213 not out to become Australia’s highest individual scorer in a women’s Test and it must be acknowledged that if it hadn’t been for the governing body taking its own initiative, there would have been no live coverage of it. Seven have committed to show every women’s international, which is a first for the game in Australia.
Whilst the deal is a win for the women, many Australians have been gnashing their teeth at the fact that Cricket Australia have allowed men’s home one-day internationals and international T20s to go exclusively to Fox for the next six years and thus behind a paywall for the first time in Australian cricket history. Words of warning have been sounded as to the impact this may have on the profile of the game and its players, many citing the ECB’s decision to give all live rights to Sky in 2006. Home internationals have long been on the Australian governments anti-siphoning list, the equivalent of the UK’s list of ‘crown jewel’ events. However, the legislation doesn’t stop a free-to-air broadcaster like Seven buying rights, and then selling them on, as has happened here.
In the wake of the public reaction and media questioning, Australia’s Federal Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, was forced to explain that the legislation “gives the free-to-air broadcasters the first right to negotiate. It does not mandate that free-to-air broadcasters have to purchase events. It does not mandate that if they do purchase, that they have to show them. And it does not mandate that if they do purchase events that they can’t then on-sell them to other platforms.”
Men’s Test cricket, however, does remain on free-to-air television, and will be shown on both Seven and Fox, with broadcasters pledging a young and inclusive feel to the coverage. At a time when the popularity of Test cricket is again being questioned, the Adelaide Test match has pulled in record viewing figures, buoyed by the prime-time night sessions, since it became a floodlit encounter in 2015. More than 10 million viewers tuned in to watch Australia beat England last December.
The Boxing Day and New Year Tests remain a fixture in the Australian social calendar, although crowds for non-Ashes matches have dropped off significantly after days one and two in recent years, particularly when a Big Bash match has been in town. If Test matches can be presented in an increasingly engaging manner then it could be that Tests are a winner too. The game needs them to be.
Australia’s Nine Network has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years for both a lack of diversity and a commentary style that often looked inward instead of outward. Yet it is worth remembering what Nine has done for cricket and cricketers, not just in Australia, but worldwide. Nine supremo Kerry Packer revolutionised the sport when he controversially introduced World Series Cricket with its floodlights and coloured clothing back in 1977.
He recognised that cricketers were not paid what they were worth, and players around the world can be grateful for what he started in the name of Nine, even if the motivation was his own anger at being frozen out of the Australian Cricket Board’s rights deal. As Test cricket later became established on the network, the coverage, lead by the incomparable Richie Benaud, gained cult status by being parodied by the comedian Billy Birmingham.
Your columnist was one of many who grew up quoting The 12th Man tapes as they became known. The programme’s theme tune – nya pa paaaaa… nya pa pa paaaaaaaaaa – currently plays out in the lift at the SCG when you ascend to the Media Centre. In a cricket world
without Nine, I for one, hope the lift music stays as it is.