English game 'in a lot of trouble' without free-to-air TV, says Australia TV chief

Renegades' Aaron Finch and Sunil Narine warm up before going out to bat Cricket Australia/Getty Images

English cricket's custodians have been warned to return more of the game to free-to-air television or face the prospect of a further shrink in the game's audience, in the wake of sluggish ticket sales for the Edgbaston Test match.

David Barham, the Australian television executive who helmed the Ten Network's lauded Big Bash League coverage from 2013 to this year and has now moved to the new Cricket Australia broadcast rights holders Seven, has been consulted by visiting delegations from the ECB and counties over several years.

He told ESPNcricinfo that a strong free-to-air television presence was vital for sports that wished to remain visible and relevant to large audiences, pointing to the relative struggles of the football A-League in the competitive Australian marketplace as an example of a sport taking pay television dollars over bigger viewership. Barham has been encouraged by the ECB's decision to award a sprinkling of matches to the BBC from 2020 onwards, fully 15 years after cricket was hidden behind Sky's paywall.

"It's been interesting and I've had a lot of visits over the last few years from people coming out here trying to figure out what happened with the BBL and county cricket … I think three years in a row there was a posse of county cricket bosses coming out," Barham said. "I think if you're not on free-to-air you're in a lot of trouble.

"I think the BBL proved one one thing, and that is by looking at the A-League [football] and the BBL [audiences]. The A-League, where are they? Almost dead. BBL went from a slim TV audience to a million, and even crowds went from about 12,000 to 30,000 over five years, mainly on the back of free-to-air TV. You've got to be on free-to-air to have a chance. It'll be interesting to see what happens in England with their league."

Caught between sceptical television networks and self-preservationist counties, the ECB has been taken aback by the reaction to their proposals for a fourth format of the game which is even shorter than Twenty20. Barham said that the length and entertainment value of sporting contests had been a matter of concern for numerous governing bodies when negotiating with broadcasters in recent times.

"Short, sharp," he said. "I know a lot of other sporting bodies started to look at the length of their game because of the BBL, even the AFL looked at how long they're going. It's appropriate that KFC sponsors the BBL, because it's like fast food. Grab something, eat it, you beauty. But all sports are looking at how long they go and what they do, because the attention span of kids is decreasing."

Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, has underlined the difficulty of turning back more than a decade spent ignoring free-to-air broadcasters, leading to the creation of The Hundred. "This was an opportunity for free-to-air to do something different with a format that had never been on terrestrial TV in prime time," Harrison told SportsPro Magazine last year.

"That opportunity is tremendously exciting. It's still very challenging for free-to-air TV to schedule long-form cricket - either ODI or Test match cricket. That's not to say that that can't happen in the future, but for this particular moment in time where, traditionally to pay-TV, the BBC are losing rights, this was a moment where they could celebrate something returning - a major sport coming back with significant investment behind it."

Another Australian, Matt Dwyer, recently resigned from his role as head of growth and participation for the ECB, but before his departure made it clear that English cricket had to present a radical idea to broadcasters in order to get the game back to being seen by a wider audience.

"We're just saying for a five-week period, cricket is going to market itself, like the Olympics does for athletics," Dwyer told Wisden Cricket Monthly in May. Cricket's back on free-to-air, and we're not asking you, as the cricket fan, to compromise very much.

"The shift in the narrative when it went from the BBC, saying that cricket has not been a part of their plans for 17 years, to telling them we've got something new and revolutionary, you could see the change. Four out of five people in this country just see cricket as boring. So what are we doing to attract them? Something different.

"Otherwise the broadcasters wouldn't compromise their traditional model. And it had to differentiate itself from the Blast, so we don't just have traditionalist cricket fans turning up again. And then, ultimately, we need it to link back to participation. So, rather than ask if we've gone too far, my question would be - have we been radical enough?"