Associates – Why it’s time for the emerging nations to follow baseball’s lead

Tim Wigmore’s weekly look at the game below the Test-playing nations

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Cricket’s equivalent of this conundrum is this: if a one-day international is played and no one sees it, did it really happen?

Such ghost ODIs, not live-streamed anywhere or even broadcast on audio, remain far too common. It is not only an Associates problem, either: it is even unclear whether Zimbabwe’s looming tri-series, against Sri Lanka and the West Indies, will be broadcast live at all.

All of which highlights Hong Kong’s enlightened approach. All three of their home ODIs against Papua New Guinea – won 2-1 by the hosts – were live-streamed on YouTube. While there was nothing fancy about the broadcast, the cameras and commentary were both excellent. Beaming the matches around the world was also a brilliant marketing tool. Cricket Hong Kong got a lot for the $7,000 they invested in the stream for each match.

“We see streaming as a key initiative to build value around the Hong Kong teams and to help celebrate our heroes’ many stories,” says Tim Cutler, the chief executive of Cricket Hong Kong. “We see this very much as an investment in the future of Hong Kong Cricket the ‘product’ and also to build a true ‘spirit’ around the sport. We are especially happy with initial stream figures showing our biggest market by far was Hong Kong, which is music is to our ears – especially as we hope to secure a long-term local broadcaster.”

While Hong Kong made a loss streaming the ODIs, it is better seen as an investment in the future. Streaming is the best possible way to spread word to cricket fans around the world about the team. It allows exciting clips to be promoted on Twitter, or given to local TV stations. And, as Cutler emphasises, streaming also promotes Cricket Hong Kong’s commercial partners: by giving them more exposure and a better return on their investment, they are more likely to keep backing the team.

Others should take heed of this approach. Cricket Ireland already have, using their extra funding from the ICC to ramp up investment in live streaming last summer. They showed all of Ireland’s home matches, barring those against Sri Lanka and Pakistan which other broadcasters bought the rights to, as well as several women’s fixtures, a domestic three-day match and two all-Ireland cup finals.

As Ireland attempt to ‘make cricket mainstream’, as their recent strategic plan declared, the revolution must be televised. It was a shame that, last summer, none of Scotland’s games at all were live-streamed, even if this can partly be explained by the lack of cash they get compared with Ireland.

The hotch-potch approach to streaming fully-fledged ODIs and T20Is demeans cricket and impedes it gaining new fans and expanding. It is time for a much more ambitious approach.

Baseball provides a clue about what is possible. In 2008 Major League Baseball launched AtBat, allowing fans to pay to watch live footage of matches, and call up statistics or action replays at will, effectively making each fan the director of their own private broadcast. It is the highest-grossing iPhone sports app of all-time, and was downloaded a record 11million times in 2014.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  A general view as the Chicago Cubs celebrate after defeating the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

While researching Saving The Test, a fine book on the future of Test cricket, three years ago, author Mike Jakeman discussed AtBat with cricket administrators. He was left hopeful that a similar concept would soon be adopted. But, three years later cricket is still waiting for even a pale imitation. That is an opportunity missed and shows cricket, once again, lacking in vision.

Here is a problem that the ICC should be grappling with. While the lack of cohesiveness between Full Member boards has historically been a roadblock to such a collaborative venture, the news that a number of Test nations are discussing pooling their overseas broadcasting rights (rights to their home matches in overseas markets) is a welcome sign of enlightenment.

But the ICC could take the matter into their own hands. It could arrange a centralised model for streaming all ODIs involving Associates, and show them live on the ICC’s website. Other matches ignored by broadcasters – like that Zimbabwe tri-series – could also be shown, and the ICC could gradually aim to show more and more games on the service. Advertisers could be enticed to support the broadcasts, which would show off the best of Associate cricket – and so help encourage greater interest in the nations.

The ICC could also ensure streaming could be tailor-made for people to watch on their phones. Like baseball, cricket lends itself ideally to being watched while fans draw up statistics and replays at will. If it invests seriously in broadcasting, the ICC has an opportunity to lead pioneering coverage of the game, tailor-made to millennials’ tastes.

“Co-creation will be the key to the success of a broadcaster’s future,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford. “Users are no longer passive consumers of an experience, they want to be co-creators of experiences.”

The ICC have already done outstanding work in the broadcasting of ICC events and qualifiers, and their work promoting clips of the best moments is superb. The ICC already possesses much of the expertise it needs to produce a superb broadcasting service all-year round, not merely for ICC events.

If Hong Kong can produce a good broadcast for $7,000 a day, then finding the sums to show matches ought to be easy for the ICC. As a modest start, all World Cricket League Championship games should be live-streamed. The matches are part of the qualifying pathway for the 2019 World Cup, after all, and no other major sport would allow qualifiers to its marquee event to be hidden away from view.

The figures for the ICC’s broadcasting of the World T20 qualifiers last year – I understand around 100million watched across the 20 matches broadcast live on Star Sports – were also hugely encouraging, and pleasantly surprised many.

The point is that a sizeable market already exists here, and with enlightened thinking it can be grown. “We would love the ICC to consider funding streams as part of their hosting support for home teams for every series to give emerging cricket the exposure it deserves,” Cutler says.

If that proves impossible, the top Associates should try and work together to establish a platform for streaming matches, sharing costs and getting companies involved for the long-term to make the concept affordable. Associate cricket desperately needs the exposure.

The ICC will generate about $2.5bn in revenue between 2015 and 2023. Cricket is far richer than it has ever been. Ensuring all fully-fledged internationals are broadcast ought to be the start of serious attempts to help the sport grow beyond the cosy cabal of Full Members.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, November 11 2016

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