Peter Cox in SMH on viewer fatigue for cricket

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Howzat gadget? New tech, deals and Michael Clarke at Nine for record summer of cricket

Michael Evans
Published: October 29, 2016 – 4:00AM

If you don’t like cricket, now would be a good time to look away. For about four months.

When the familiar whack of leather on willow signals the start of the summer’s first Test match next Thursday, Australians had better get used to it. More cricket than ever before is about to be broadcast into our lounge rooms, offices and pubs.

Between now and March there are six Tests, eight one-day internationals, three international T20s, 35 Big Bash games and 12 womens league games. By Cricket Australia’s calculations that’s 78 days of flannelled fools and pyjama-clad players, interspersed with ads for deep-fried chicken, beer and the latest odds on two flies walking up a wall. All of it on free-to-air television.

The start of the season also marks the start of a delicate dance – the affections of a cricket-loving public are solicited, broadcasters want access to bigger audiences, shareholders worry about free-to-air broadcasters spending too much, and players (and others) worry about just how much is too much cricket.

And with the breakout success of the Twenty20 Big Bash last year the stakes have been raised over the future of the game. Negotiations are set to begin next year on the broadcast deal to bankroll cricket in Australia. The multimillion-dollar business of cricket is evolving before your eyes.

Complicating matters is the not insignificant fact that the summer of cricket follows Australia’s 3-0 drubbing in the Test series against Sri Lanka and 5-0 in the one-day series in South Africa. A resurgent South Africa could soon put a significant dent in the aspirations of broadcasters and officials, as well as players and fans.

The irony is that for all the reports over the past decade that cricket is dying, media companies, facing their own existential problems, are hungrier than ever for content that will deliver big audiences. And in a crowded summer that features the Australian Open tennis and the A-League soccer competition, staying fresh, relevant – and profitable – has never been more crucial.


New gadgets and new faces are the most obvious changes viewers will notice this summer. Channel Nine begins its 40th year of cricket broadcasting, refreshing its commentary team with the addition of controversial ex-captain Michael Clarke while cleaning out Michael Hussey, Brett Lee and James Brayshaw.

Nine regularly introduces new gadgets and this year is no different. Following the Weather Wall, Snicko and Hot Spot, now comes ScanCam.

“There’s two applications,” says the Nine Network’s director of sport, Tom Malone. “It scans the pitch every day and tells you which parts of the pitch are alive and which parts are dead – you’ll be able to show viewers why the bowler is aiming there, the grip and turn they get there.

“The second part of that is that the sonar creates a 3D image of the pitch – when a fast bowler comes in and hits the crack and deviates we can fly in and look at the crack.”

Content and scheduling

Three of this year’s six Test matches are effectively day-night games, taking advantage of time differences and changing technology to reach a larger slice of the east-coast audience.

The first Test of the Australian summer has traditionally been in Brisbane, capitalising on its drier pre-Christmas climate. But this year’s first Test is in Perth, allowing Channel Nine to use the three-hour time difference with the populous east coast to beam the game into lounge rooms in the highly attractive early evening. Even more significantly, the Test will be played in the official ratings period.

With the Adelaide Test against South Africa and the Brisbane Test against Pakistan both day-night Tests, questions remain about whether the Sydney and Melbourne Tests will eventually follow suit. But stakeholders acknowledge that the Boxing Day and New Year’s Tests are big events in their own right, occurring in a holiday period when most people are not rushing home from work looking for evening entertainment.

In the week before Christmas the Big Bash juggernaut hits the screens of rival Ten Network, with 35 games of the short form. Last year the Big Bash drew huge crowds and TV audiences, offering a fresh take on a traditional game, with an average one million viewers.

Ten Network’s Big Bash boss David Barham says the format appeals because it’s quick, fun and there all the time.

“It’s condensed into a short period, it’s habitual, you turn it on every night and it’s on 18 nights in a row from Boxing Day.

“You can tune in and tune out a bit but you can never turn it off. You turn off at your own risk because three balls can make a game go the other way.

“Regardless of anything else, there’s a hunger for sports fans for sport returning to what it was a while ago – fun. People don’t get sick of having a good time.”

Women’s cricket will feature prominently this year, with a standalone weekend in December where Channel Ten will broadcast four WBBL matches in one weekend, starring Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry.

TV rights

The breakout success of the Big Bash last year has upped the stakes on the next round of broadcast rights. There are two years left on the current deal but negotiations will kick off in the new year with expectations of a deal by the middle of the year.

In 2013, Ten bid $550 million for the rights to broadcast all cricket over five years; Test matches, one-day international matches and the Big Bash League.

However, Nine had a “last rights” clause that allowed it to match Ten’s bid. Nine’s then boss, David Gyngell, paid $450 million for just the international matches and Ten secured the Big Bash League for what is now considered a bargain $20 million a year for five years. Some analysts have suggested that the rights could jump to to $60 million a year under a new deal.

With Ten and Foxtel now heavily influenced by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, speculation has centred on whether the Murdoch camp will fund a joint bid. Nine is known to be keen for the Big Bash rights. Analysts believe Seven, which has a strong suit in tennis over summer, will also be assessing how it can better profit from the summer sports festival.

Independent media analyst Peter Cox says the state of the media industry is important in considering what comes next.

“I do think there are challenging times this summer,” he says. The whole media sector is “financially challenged”, he says “and puts them all in a very difficult situation about what to pay for the rights in the long term future”.

Fatigue? Audience and players

What’s the impact of all this cricket?

“Viewer fatigue is a problem in the modern age,” Cox says.

But there are clear winners, such as second-string and older players, who get the chance to earn a crust and show their wares.

Cricket lacks one thing right now, Cox says. “It’s like horse racing – you need stars. Stars is what draws people in. But we’re not producing stars – certainly not at the moment in bowling – and [Australian captain] Steve Smith is struggling not only as a captain but for runs.”

Cricket Australia’s marketing boss Ben Amarfio is, perhaps understandably, upbeat with the renewed vigour around coverage of the game.

“We and our broadcasters, both Nine and Ten, are licking our lips about the prospects of our line-up for this summer,” he says.

And that’s before rights negotiations start.

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