Australian cricket has been in turmoil during the Covid-19 pandemic and the situation hit a nadir on the eve of its season.
The high-profile governing body – representing a cricket nation dubbed to be part of the influential ‘big three’ along with India and England – is mired in a bitter dispute with disgruntled free-to-air broadcaster Channel Seven, which is threatening to walk away from its (AUD) $450 million ($328m) cricket deal.
In 2018, just months after Australian cricket was ripped apart by the sandpaper cheating debacle, Seven and cable television broadcaster Foxtel agreed with Cricket Australia (CA) on a record six-year deal worth (AUD) $1.2 billion ($870 million).
Aside from the jaw-dropping figure, the historic announcement ended the four-decade reign of Channel Nine as the home of the Australian cricket summer, while Channel 10 had ushered the extraordinary growth of the Big Bash League (BBL) in the middle of last decade with its inventive broadcasts.
CA decided against a bid from Channels 9 and 10 – owned by ViacomCBS – of (AUD) $900 million ($655m) over six years because it seemingly wanted the glossy $1 billion figure bandied around to rival such landmarks from the Australian Football League (AFL) and National Rugby League.
At the time, even though Australian cricket was recovering from the horrors of the Newlands scandal, the television rights was deemed as highly prestigious for broadcasters and a bidding war eventuated much to the delight of CA keen to fill the coffers.
In some ways, the saturated coverage amid the fallout from the sandpaper saga underlined the Australian public’s innate passion for cricket, a country where cricketers are put on a pedestal. But the financial carrot lay with the lucrative BBL, the Twenty20 domestic league that had been a roaring success marked by record crowds and huge television ratings during the summer school holidays.
CA – with help from Channel 10 – had created a juggernaut through the BBL and a seemingly never-ending money spinner.
It all appeared rosy until the pandemic hit and then CA chief executive Kevin Roberts made the stunning admission that the governing body was not as flush with cash as expected. His worrying assessment led to CA’s controversial decision for 80% pay cuts to 200 staff, including senior men’s coach Justin Langer.
There was fierce backlash on CA’s handling of the crisis and by mid-year Roberts fell on his sword. But there has been no breather for an under-pressure CA faced with the logistical nightmare of salvaging its season through the pandemic.
Due to the different pandemic regulations among the state governments, CA has not released its updated schedule which is headlined by a blockbuster four-Test series with cash spinner India. CA insist no matches will be lost and the entirety of the BBL will go ahead albeit most likely in travelling hubs, where blocks of games over 10 days will be played in different cities.
“We are confident of delivering a compelling summer schedule that will meet our commitments to our broadcast partners and the high expectations of our fans,” CA interim chief executive Nick Hockley said.
But debt-stricken Seven is not satisfied and has threatened to terminate the contract. It wants a rights discount in similar fashion to its restructured deal with the AFL, which did lose a chunk of its season due to the pandemic.
The clauses have applied to Foxtel due to the postponement of several white-ball series this year but Test cricket and the BBL/WBBL – which are part of Channel Seven’s coverage – is set to remain intact.
CA appears confident in its legal standing but the matter is seemingly heading into a nasty battle in the courtrooms. Perhaps in a tactic to unnerve the governing body knowing a termination of the broadcast deal would be catastrophic for Australian cricket, Seven attacked the product of the BBL saying it is diluted by the lack of star Australian players participating due to their annual national commitments.
“This is not an acceptable product and we will not support the season,” Seven chief executive James Warburton told The Daily Telegraph newspaper recently. “Cricket Australia have an obligation to deliver a competition of no lesser standard than the past.”
Warburton’s assessment is off the mark. Australia’s top players have never regularly played in the BBL and there is evidence to suggest that domestic T20 leagues worldwide – apart from the behemoth of the Indian Premier League – do better when packaged around home grown youngsters.
Seven was only too keen on nabbing the rights just two years ago and hoped to expand the competition to further swell the cash register. CA was only too happy to oblige.
But the family-friendly BBL – which was smartly packaged around the six-week school holiday period – became bloated and lost some of its luster marked by smaller crowds although television ratings remained strong.
Seven quite clearly is playing hardball but CA has failed to blink so far. On Wednesday, Seven refused to pay full price for its September installment as part of the broadcast rights but is adamant it will televise cricket even amid the escalating war.
The muckraking is just beginning.