Cricket's Problem Goes Beyond A TV Paywall

It's a dilemma that all sports face. Do you take the massive amount of money on offer from a satellite or cable provider and appeal to a smaller audience, or do you go for a terrestrial deal that gives a larger audience but less cash?

To put that question into perspective, Sky allowed Channel 4 to show the Cricket World Cup final on Sunday to ensure anyone with a television could see what turned out to be, arguably, the most amazing game of cricket ever.

If you are one of those who considers the game boring, I would challenge you to go back in time and watch the last hour without being gripped to the edge of your seat. A tied game that went to a an extra "super over" each, and was still tied and so decided on boundaries. It was just too stressful to watch.

And you know what -- many did not. Even with terrestrial viewing available the peak audience on Channel 4 hit 4.5m, offering a combined 8m peak audience, half of whom tuned in for the entire match. If you take a look at those who were watching on free terrestrial channels, double the number tuned into the BBC for the Wimbledon final to see a five-set thriller. It was the first time a new rule calling for a tie break when the fifth set is tied at twelves games each.

So, yes, the Channel 4 altruistic act from Sky doubled the audience but it still was less than the Wimbledon final. In fact, the terrestrial audience for the final was below that achieved by the last couple of Lionesses' games in the Women's World Cup in late June and early July. 

It has called for some soul searching in cricket, where the organising body's supporters rightly point out that the game would be foolish to turn down the big money offered by a satellite provider. We then come on to that old argument that this money will trickle down into the game.

I would suggest those who believe this will happen should go and look at the facilities available to the average grassroots junior football club and wonder where on earth the hundreds of millions that goes into the top tier of the sport goes?

I can assure you that the best chance any club has of getting new nets and a decent artificial pitch is to have a massive housing development build close by and for the developer to supply the necessary funds via a "Section 106" agreement to obtain planning permission.

On the flip side of this, one can argue that it isn unknown whether significantly more people would watch on terrestrial when an everyday game between two counties is being broadcast rather than a thrilling final. If that is the case, why take the risk -- why not go for the big money offer?

It also has to be said that the technology, the graphics and the way Sky presents cricket is second to none. The platform is to be applauded for its coverage and its investment in the game.

Only, there's this nagging doubt that in a couple of weeks everyone will have forgotten about Sunday's trophy lifting and life will go back to normal.

For cricket, the sad news is that normal means small crowds and low levels of interest among the general population, compared to football and rugby. Sure, The Ashes will get us all talking soon enough, but when Somerset play Durham? Not so much.

Perhaps the problem isn't tv at all. Lots of kids have the chance to play cricket at school but go the way of football or rugby because a game of cricket can last all day, and you still get a draw. In fact, with test cricket it can go on five days, and you still have no winner.

With football and rugby, the action is more intense, the fitness work out shared between all 22 or 30 players at the same time. In cricket, one side of the game will spend half the day spectating. I can't think of any other sport looking for mass participation and large tv audiences that requires so much time from its players and spectators.

That is why the 100-ball version of the game -- 10 overs of 10 balls -- due to launch next summer could be so vital. It will make games far faster and require batsmen to attempt the big shots in a limited time frame. Forget teams playing it safe for a day -- this will be exciting. 

Maybe, just maybe, this will be the shot in the arm the game needs. Big tv money, but also some compelling action that doesn't require days on end for anything to happen. 

Let's be clear. Sunday's first ever victory for England in the cricket world cup was not as popular as a Serbian beating a Swiss tennis player at Wimbledon, even after it was made free to view.

Years of being hidden behind a tv paywall have not helped but then neither has the format of the game, even the one-day game. I don't think the importance of the switch to a 100-ball match can be played down. 

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