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Cricket's bold leap into the unknown

15th April, 2018
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Australia celebrate a wicket. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Expert
15th April, 2018
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Cricket Australia’s new TV broadcast deal provides a double-edged sword – more of the game being shown but a considerable amount of it behind a paywall.

The deal ends a near four-decade monopoly by FTA’s Channel Nine.

It also represents the first time in the history of the sport in this country that the fan will have to pay a premium to watch the Australian team, in its entirety, on home soil.

What impact that will have is currently an unknown factor, but safe to say it will have one.

What we do know is, despite the fact that the likes of the AFL and NRL have games exclusively aired on subscription TV, the uptake of Foxtel is only around 30 per cent. It remains to be seen what impact cricket will have on that percentage.

The sport in this country has taken a hammering as a result of the recent ball-tampering scandal. In the immediate wake of the incident, many fans on social media were saying their disenchantment would see them turn their back on the sport.

Steve Smith

(AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

The broadcasters – who between them are shelling out $1.2bn over six years – will be hoping that time heals those wounds, none more so than Foxtel where the punter will have to be wooed back and then asked to pay for the opportunity to watch many of the matches Australia plays.

The quarantining of one-day internationals and international T20s behind a paywall means both forms will have a greatly diminished audience.

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That creates an interesting scenario for ODIs in particular. Many see that format as the least attractive of the three on offer and the fact that Seven has not expressed an interest in covering them has allowed Foxtel to get around the anti-siphoning legislation.

With it appearing exclusively on pay-TV from now on, the television audience will be diluted significantly.

This summer’s home schedule will feature five ODIs against South Africa and three against Sri Lanka. Those matches will be used as key warm-up fixtures ahead of next June’s 50-over World Cup in England where Australia will be looking to defend its title.

That World Cup will be shown on Channel Nine as part of an existing contract with the ICC.

But, unless you have a pay-TV subscription, you will not see Australia in that format again until it plays its first match in England in the middle of next year.

What that will do to the profile and interest in the one-day game remains to be seen. While all Test matches over the duration of the new deal will be simulcast on both Seven and Foxtel, the latter will have exclusivity on 16 of the 59 BBL matches.

In terms of what the fans were able to watch over the 2017-18 summer, the number remains the same with the BBL expanding from its existing 43-game fixture to a total of 59, inclusive of two semi-finals and the final.

The big winner out of the new arrangement is the women’s game. Every home international played by the Australian team will be shown on FTA television, a first for the sport.

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Both Seven and Foxtel will simulcast every Test, ODI and Twenty20over the lifespan of the six-year deal.

Twenty-three of the scheduled 59 WBBL matches will be shown on Seven with the remainder being carried on CA’s Live App.

The volume of women’s matches being shown on FTA television is a massive coup for the sport. The number of girls taking up the game has grown exponentially in recent years on the back of matches being shown on FTA television.

Had the new deal taken women’s fixtures behind a paywall it would have greatly diminished the continued growth of the female game. The new deal is also likely to see an increase in women in the commentary boxes.

Hurricanes batter Emma Thompson plays a shot during the Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) T20 semi-final match between the Sydney Sixers and Hobart Hurricanes at the Gabba in Brisbane, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

As participation rates continue to swell, it would be remiss of the broadcasters not to include female voices in their coverage of the male game.

The likes of former Australian players such as Mel Jones and Lisa Sthalekar, who have both transitioned from the field to the commentary box in recent times, are prime candidates to be involved in the new look commentary teams.

Just who both networks choose to be behind the microphone has already lit up social media.

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By dint of its AFL coverage, Seven has numerous commentators on its books with the likes of Bruce McAvaney, Hamish McLachlan, Basil Zempilas and Brian Taylor all front and centre.

None of them have a background in cricket broadcasting and none have played the sport to any significant level.

From a personal perspective, and having been a sports broadcaster for nearly 30 years, I have always maintained that sports like cricket and tennis are best served by former players or coaches when it comes to actually commentating the sport.

In the various football codes and other sports like basketball and hockey, the commentator describes the action as it happens.

In tennis, commentators are silent while the ball is in motion, and simply add analysis once the point has ended. Hence, from a commentary perspective, the sport is best suited to those with a strong background in it as a participant.

Cricket is quite similar in the way it is called.

Due to the desire for clean ‘ins’ when it comes to cutting highlights, there is no real commentary as the broadcasters are actually silent when the ball is delivered and generally only make comments in a past tense when the play has concluded.

Most of the commentary work in television cricket is about analysis rather than description.

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Globally, there are very few commentators who have not played the game to a high level. As long as those chosen are articulate and fluent in their delivery, I believe that is the way to go.

The Nine commentary team has been pretty much exclusively made up of former international or first-class players over the past four decades.

That is likely to be the way both Seven and Foxtel approach it as well.

The odd commentator may make the move from Channel Nine to one of the new broadcasters but, in the main, I doubt we will see many of them again in the summers ahead.

The likes of Mel McLaughlin – who was a host on Ten’s BBL coverage before moving to Ten – may well be used in some kind of capacity but the commentators are most likely to be former players, both male and female.

One thing is guaranteed: whoever the networks choose, they will all have their critics as it is an area where total consensus is a non-event.

We are entering a whole new era with respect to the coverage of the sport in this country and it is very much a case of watch this space in the months ahead.

By this time next year, fans will have made their assessment on just how both networks have fared.

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And, by then, we will also know just what sort of audiences both Seven and Foxtel have garnered for their coverage.

Cricket Australia, in particular, will keenly await those figures.