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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Forget T20. Internet rights are cricket's real Pandora's box

Writing in the 149th edition of Wisden, its new editor, Lawrence Booth, has some harsh and typically eloquent words for the cricketing authorities. As well as describing the spread of T20 as "a Pandora's box masquerading as a panacea" he also lambasted the "self-interest" of cricket's governing bodies and, in particular, the BCCI for "the growth of private marketeers and high level conflicts of interest" which he believes underlie the IPL and have coincided not coincidentally with India's fall from grace in the year following on from their second World Cup win.

Seeing the crowds of people being introduced to and ecstatically enjoying cricket at T20 games, whether domestic or international, I don't quite share the sentiment that the shortest format is a "Pandora's box" ready to implode all over itself and cricket as a whole, however risible some of its more commercial innovations might be to those of us who somehow managed to grow up liking the sport without DLF Maximums being involved.  Instead, a far bigger and more combustible Pandora's box is, for me, the way that the rights to show international cricket on the internet are still bundled together with TV ones when sold to broadcasting partners such as Sky in a manner which is utterly at odds with the way other forms of entertainment, and indeed some forms of cricket including the IPL, are marketed in 2012.

Millions of cricket fans watch the game illegally on internet streams which, when they can actually be located, often just serve up grainy screens, numerous pop-up ads and a huge amount of frustration. As an expat living in the Czech Republic if I wish to watch my country, England, play cricket my only option is to do so via someone else (certainly) and myself (possibly) breaking the law and hope that my virus protection is up to scratch. With Czech TV stations unsurprisingly not paying the ECB for broadcast or internet rights, I could only watch England play completely legally by moving back to the UK or Ireland and paying for a Sky TV subscription. So while I accept that ECB chief, Giles Clarke, may have a point when he bleats that such streams are "the biggest danger to cricket, because they take money out of the game without commercial benefit to us", it is not because I think executives at Zee, Sky and Channel Nine will catastrophically reduce the amount they pay for rights deals, but because cricket remains happier to condemn people who love the sport so much they are prepared to break the law to watch it, rather than actually tap into this vast market and provide them with a legal means of doing so. If Sky and the ECB allowed me to pay to watch their legitimate internet stream I would happily do so.

I therefore agree with Booth that there is a huge amount of self-interest from cricket's national boards, but not because through their increased adherence to T20 they lopsidedly promote a format that people undoubtedly want to watch, but because selling international cricket's internet rights on a national basis is petty, self-defeating and utterly anachronistic. Netflix, iTunes and the like have transformed the way that people can view content from other countries, and offer viewers the chance to pay to view the product they want in a high quality format. Cricket, meanwhile, remains shackled in its nationalistic shell, with fans forced to either live in the country they wish to watch play and buy a TV deal with an internet option tagged on, or do what surely the huge, non-paying majority do and ferret around for illegal streams. By selling the internet rights of the game off in nationalistic chunks, Clarke and the like are excluding themselves and cricket from the huge amounts of revenue that other forms of entertainment such as films and TV enjoy because of a long-standing and obvious acceptance that the internet doesn't stop at the boundary marker of, for example, Calais or Chennai.

If the international game really wants to save itself - and the ICC itself show that it can be of genuine practical value to supporters rather than just the toothless, DRS-prevaricating jelly many believe it to be - wouldn't it be a good idea if those in Dubai mooted the idea of trying to establish one single internet channel on which all international matches could be broadcast reliably and for a reasonable price and made available to any fan across the world willing to pay? Unravelling the long term multi-million deals which presently govern cricket - see here, here and here - clearly make such an idea naive and fanciful, and not least because in any game or series of international cricket there are obviously at least two teams and at least two broadcasters involved, but I cannot see how the present system of audience and revenue exclusion is tenable. Instead of playing an unwinnable game of Hammer Heads against illegal stream providers, surely Clarke and the ICC would be better served trying to harness the desire and wallets of those who view them?

A logistical nightmare it might be, but off the bat I would suggest that the subscription fee for an ICC-run channel would be fed back to the national boards in recompense for the loss of revenue they incur for the loss of exclusivity when negotiating broadcast rights contracts with domestic TV companies and, while millions of fans would still flock to watch illegal streams in the same way millions of fans flock to Pirate Bay and Vuze to illegally download the latest films, millions of others would also be willing to pay to watch cricket from a single, high quality source they knew they could rely on. Even if fans could only use such a channel to watch games from outside the country in which they reside - protecting the internet rights of the TV companies within their domestic territory - it would surely be a start?

Over 50 million people watched the IPL free on its official Youtube channel in 2010 which not only suggests that the appetite for online viewing is there, but that the many TV companies who paid to broadcast the tournament on domestic TV stations already have a certain acceptance that keeping a slavish nationalistic hold over internet rights is no longer tenable in the present age.

Ruing the fact people don't enjoy Test, or even ODI cricket, as much as they used to isn't going to save international cricket. Providing people with an accessible, reliable, worldwide platform on which to watch it online, however, just might.

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