A Labour government would consider adding at least one England match a year to the ‘crown jewels’ list of live sport that must be made available on free-to-air television.
The pledge was made by Labour’s shadow culture secretary and deputy leader Tom Watson a day after 8.3 million viewers watched the closing stages of England’s World Cup triumph at Lord’s on Sunday evening.
That audience was spread across Channel 4 and Sky Sports after the latter agreed to share its exclusive live rights with the terrestrial channel – a deal which put the England men’s cricket team back on free-to-air television for the first time since the famous Ashes series of 2005.
Channel 4 had the live rights for that series but the England and Wales Cricket Board had already lobbied the government to downgrade the status of home Test matches on the protected list of sports events so it could sell the live rights to the pay-TV broadcaster.
From 2006 until Sunday’s dramatic finale, only highlights of England’s matches have been shown by free-to-air broadcasters – a period that has seen huge sums of money flow into the sport from Sky, which the ECB has spent on its national sides and grassroots projects, but at the expense of cricket’s profile.
As a result, many fans and pundits have called for a rethink on the cash-versus-eyeballs equation, with some suggesting at least one Test or limited-overs match per summer should be televised by a free-to-air broadcaster – a call that will only grow with the Ashes about to start again.
Watson told PA: “England winning the Cricket World Cup final was an astonishing achievement that had millions of people at the edge of their seats. It was brilliant to see great cricket come out from behind the paywall and for the final to be shown on free-to-air TV.
“We want as many people as possible to be able to share in the best of our sporting moments. That’s why Labour would review the list of crown jewel sporting events that are broadcast free-to-air.”
And these views are shared across the political spectrum.
Former sports minister Tracey Crouch, the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, told PA: “Broadcast deals are a matter for sport, not politicians, and to be fair to the ECB its new deal does contain a mix of pay and terrestrial TV matches.
“But I really think that given the viewing figures for both the women’s football World Cup and men’s Cricket World Cup final, sport needs to reflect on whether broadcast deals should be about the money or the impact of more people watching.”
Crouch’s point about the ECB’s “new deal” is a reference to next summer’s launch of The Hundred tournament, a concept that will see eight city-based franchises play a novel 100-ball format, with some of the games broadcast simultaneously by Sky and the BBC.
But whether that will be enough to create a positive legacy from this summer’s cricketing highs will be debated by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee this autumn.
Its chairman Damian Collins, another Conservative MP for a Kent constituency, told PA he has already invited the ECB chairman Colin Graves to appear before the panel of backbench MPs after the Ashes and the “key question” would be how the governing body intends to boost participation.
“I think there is an interesting tension between the visibility you get from free-to-air and the greater resources you get from pay TV,” Collins told PA.
“What we want to explore is whether more free-to-air cricket will inspire more people to play and go to watch the sport. The ECB has clearly taken a strategic decision with The Hundred to try to find that balance between profile and resources.”
The resources point was also made by former England bowler and current ECB director of cricket for the men’s team Ashley Giles in an interview with BBC Radio 4.
“Make no mistake, the investment Sky has put into the game has helped us get to the point where we were at yesterday,” he said.
“Sky took the game on and have been fantastic supporters since. Thank you to them for allowing it on Channel 4.”
This spirit of gratitude has been echoed by Channel 4’s chief executive Alex Mahon, who is celebrating her channel’s best day since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics in London, as Channel 4 and Sky also shared the live rights to the British Grand Prix – another 3.7 million watched Lewis Hamilton win that race across the two networks.
“It’s wonderful that the whole nation can come together to share these momentous British sporting events thanks to a fantastic partnership between Channel 4 and Sky,” she said.
Sky, too, enjoyed a bumper audience, with 3.5 million viewers watching the final’s thrilling climax on its channels.
“We’ve been proud host broadcasters of a home Cricket World Cup, dedicating a channel and showing every single minute, which has been absorbing from the first ball to the unforgettable final delivery,” said Sky’s UK and Ireland chief executive Stephen Van Rooyen.
“We are proud of our long-term cricket partnership, which has grown over three decades, delivering record investment into the sport. This partnership will continue with our coverage of the men’s and women’s Ashes this summer, and by working with the ECB to deliver a new grassroots participation campaign.”
But while most media outlets seem to agree that cricket was the big winner this weekend, it was actually beaten by tennis in terms of viewers on Sunday, with 9.6 million people watching Novak Djokovic outlast Roger Federer at Wimbledon on BBC 1 – an event that has been on the crown jewels list since it was drawn up more than 20 years ago.