Club Cricket Conference

Wednesday, 22nd May 2024

BBC must share responsibility for club cricket 'decline'

Personal view: Charles Randall

3 December 2014

BBC Television seems to have a unique vision of school sport in the summer. It goes like this.

Primary school head teacher: “Now, children, it's time for sport. My car is in the car park; see how quickly you can change the tyres. After that, you can run round and round the playground one after the other shouting brrrm, brrrm.”

The BBC public service broadcasters have continued to spend a fortune on Formula One and have screened no cricket since 1998. Our national summer sport, an activity in clubs and schools for many thousands of children, is ignored in favour of motor racing. As Giles Clarke, chairman of the ECB, once asked in exasperation: “How many schools 'play' Formula One?”  

After the ECB released figures last week suggesting the number of people playing cricket was possibly in decline, Michael Vaughan ventured some answers in the Sunday Telegraph. His suggestions, focusing on the elite recreational level, would not have carried much credibility among club cricketers, but he did make one very revealing point. “Ultimately,” he said, “cricket is just not talked about as much as it used to be.”

Readers immediately picked up on the point Vaughan did not make - that cricket was not on accessible television. The game slipped off the radar from the time Sky Sports enjoyed exclusive rights in 2006. While Sky's broadcasting quality might be fine, not enough television watchers could afford the fees. Viewing figures shrank to hundreds of thousands and not the millions to be expected from a terrestrial broadcaster.

The loss of free to air coverage might be one reason why cricket is not talked about much, and the collapse of the game in state schools must be another. An ECB survey of individual clubs in 1993, funded by Sun Life of Canada, sought answers at a time when the BBC still screened live cricket. Replies were received from about 1,000 clubs, a good response, and the most striking answers were drawn by the question of what prevented more young people taking up the game.

A stunning 97 per cent of these clubs highlighted the lack of cricket in schools, and the vast majority regarded this as “very important”. And 84 per cent of the responses felt that attitudes within clubs had significance to young people taking up the game. Apart from those two, no question in the survey drew an overwhelming agreement.

The BBC's disgraceful aversion to cricket, including highlight packages on offer, has further reduced cricket's relevance. Their attitude is not the ECB's fault, but the chickens are coming home to roost. Selling exclusive rights to Sky long-term does indeed appear to have damaged the game as a whole.

Interesting comments were made in 2004 when Sky's live exclusivity from 2006 onwards was announced. The four-year deal was worth £220 million to the ECB, a figure apparently only 10 per cent more in real terms than the previous Channel 4 contract. The figure included highlights for Channel 5, the only terrestrial bidder. At the time the ECB admitted they needed every penny they could get, and David Morgan, Clarke's predecessor as chairman of the ECB, said that the bids they accepted allowed more investment in the development of the England team and grass-roots cricket, but he added, as though anticipating a volley of criticism: “We understand that the decision to place all live cricket coverage on satellite and cable television is an emotive issue for some people."

Morgan was surely wrong about emotion. The doubts of so many people were nothing to do with any “emotive issue”. The question was whether the ECB had made a sensible deal for the game as a whole. The former England captain Alec Stewart said: “The ECB have to look at the whole picture. They may be getting a big cheque but, long-term, English cricket will suffer.”

Morgan's predecessor Lord MacLaurin queried the “balance” between satellite and terrestrial. “I think there is a big danger of depriving an awful lot of people of watching Test cricket,” he said.
Roll on 10 years and the ECB are facing reduced grants from Sport England due to participation fears. The ECB could shrug off the Sport England pressure and they accepted that direct sponsorship would decline in real terms through smaller television viewing figures until at least 2017, but ruling over a diminished sport would be an intolerable price.

The BBC maintain the iconic Test Match Special on radio, long wave, but the decision-makers still refuse to show any cricket on television, not even highlights. Sky have paid a £260 million for each renewed four-year contract, but the question whether the ECB really have to accept exclusivity must now be open to question. The ECB negotiators would insist they had little choice in view of the BBC's absence.

Despite laudable investment in facilities and mass coaching programmes in recent years, the ECB have realised they must tackle an apparent malaise in the game without delay. Most people involved at any level – not just the Sport England money men - would be very concerned at cricket's dwindling presence in the national consciousness.

The BBC refused to bid even after the 2005 Ashes series, one of the finest of all time. That contest reached deep into public affection. I spent an afternoon in a Brighton pub while groups of Poles and eastern Europeans were cheering Flintoff on, completely hooked by the drama without knowing that much about cricket. Many readers of this website would have had similar experiences.

The BBC secured the Formula One rights in a five-year contract from 2009 after ITV dropped out three years into a five-year deal. Not surprisingly the fee was not disclosed because, if it had been, the amount paid might have proved embarrassing. It emerged that the BBC were the only bidders for UK rights and, judging by motor magnate Bernie Ecclestone's elation, they probably paid well over the odds, estimated to be £125 million, plus major on-cost. The new agreement, sharing with Sky, would be many millions less.

Motor racing is a worthy spectator sport enjoyed by millions, though it does nothing for the nation's health or fitness, as cricket does. The BBC's gigantic outlay on Formula One has allowed them to cover events almost entirely abroad with, in sporting terms, limited British involvement. Though Jenson Button (2009) and Lewis Hamilton (this year) won the drivers' title, four years of this BBC exclusivity focused on a German leading a string of cars round tracks in distant lands for Austrian constructors, albeit based in Milton Keynes. The efforts by commentators and summarisers to make the over-inflated Grand Prix coverage sound exciting has been at times laughable.

After the ECB survey revelations the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph ran worthwhile pieces by Nick Hoult about a decline of club cricket. It was gratifying to see national newspapers bothering to research interesting articles not connected with website click-fodder such as KP or the daily ups and downs of England.

Perhaps one could argue there is a positive aspect to the BBC's attitude. Children who watch their television sport coverage might be inspired to wash the family car.

ESPNcricinfo ran a piece by George Dobell on Tuesday 2 December about the prospect of free to air cricket on television in co-operation with Sky before the present contract runs out in 2017.