During the rain break, which would ultimately lead to the abandonment of toaday’s Twenty20 cricket international between England and Australia, Sky TV showed a programme about the lead up to the establishment of Kerry Packer’s World Series cricket in 1977. For those not familiar with the story, I won’t recount it here, you can look it up there.
It got me thinking about the issue of there now being hardly any cricket on free-to-air television (last Friday’s Scotland v Australia game on BBC2 Scotland, being an honourable exception). I read somewhere that something like 10 times as many people watched the last day of the 2005 Ashes series on Channel 4 as watched the equivalent stage of this year’s series on Sky. It cannot be denied that Sky TV puts a lot of money into English cricket, and the ECB, which controls the UK game, argues that it invests a great deal of this money in grassroots cricket, encouraging young people to take up the game and develop their skills.
And yet, I wonder whether this is not a short-sighted attitude. I love cricket, but I wonder if I would have ever got interested in it without it being available on terrestial TV. As a kid, during school holidays, I used to sit and watch children’s TV in the mornings. On frequent occaisions, the BBC kid’s programmes would end early to accomodate live cricket coverage. For a while, I was irritated by this, and wanted my programmes back. But, eventually, I started to take an interest in the game, and, over time, I came to love it. Subsequently, I discovered Test Match Special on the radio, and began a long love affair with the entertainment from the radio commentary box, sometimes cursing the end of a rain break which interrupted the flow of banter between commmentators. How many kids today are coming across cricket by accident and learning to love it by themselves like I did? I know that my efforts to interest my son in the game have been pretty ineffectual. In today’s age of multi-channel TV, kids are not encouraged to explore new things, they can watch whatever it is they are comfortable with 24 hours a day if they are allowed to, and need never see anything challenging or different.
I heard one of the Australian cricket commentators commenting on how strange it felt to come to the UK and not see any cricket on terrestial TV. I certainly feel that one of the reasons why there didn’t seem to be the same sense of public engagment with this year’s Ashes victory was that so many fewer people could see it on TV.
So, I wonder, is the ECB spending Sky’s millions (or some of them) on nurturing grassroots cricket a more effective strategy than offering coverage free-to-air and exposing more young people to the game? Certainly, the Sky route is much more lucrative in the short term, but, is it short-sighted, and will it ultimately result in interest withering and dying?