The rise of women’s football has been exponential and remarkable, though few sports fans – at this stage – would argue it is bigger in the UK than English cricket. Yet the respective TV audiences for the recent Women’s World Cup (football) and the ongoing Cricket World Cup paint a different picture and point to rather different futures in terms of engagement and participation – highlighting the enormous importance of, simply, exposure.
No Point Being Rich if You Are Invisible
Sky have bankrolled English cricket since they secured the rights in 2006. Since then – Sky claims – over £150m has been invested to help strengthen the game, by improving international, First Class and local facilities, as well recruiting over 45,000 more grassroots coaches and over two million state school children to take up the game.
Some of those claims are debatable, though there is little doubt Sky has funded English cricket in a way that terrestrial TV never could – and of course the standard of the coverage is impeccable.
It was one of cricket’s finest writers, Gideon Haigh, who asked ‘does cricket make money in order to exist, or does it exist in order to make money?’. There is little point in being rich if you are invisible, and the viewing figures for the 2019 Cricket World Cup – hidden behind the Sky Sports paywall – have been pitiful. If you keep any sport hidden away for long enough, ultimately it will fade from public consciousness – and that will have catastrophic ramifications for grassroots participation.
The Women’s Football World Cup pulled in record breaking TV audiences – including 11.7m for the final (the highest TV audience in 2019 so far). It is, of course, too soon to consider the impact those audiences will have on grassroots participation, but it patently won’t do it any harm and will almost certainly have a hugely positive impact. The correlation between exposure and participation has long been established.
Are Sky and the ECB listening?
So while women’s football pleasingly makes hay, cricket in this country just isn’t on the radar of that many people – a point underlined when it emerged that the women’s World Cup football match on the BBC between England and Scotland had drawn a peak audience of 6.1 million, compared with 1.3m on Sky for the closing stages of England versus Pakistan at Trent Bridge the next day. England’s first three games in the Cricket World Cup drew average viewing figures of just 550,000, news that surely rang alarm bells in cricket’s corridors of power.
Channel 4’s recent documentary about the 2005 Ashes series was a thrilling reminder of one of the all-time great series, but it was also tinged with sadness and regret, as it was the last time a Test series was free-to-air. It reminded us not only of an incredible series, but of how an entire country engaged with cricket. It transcended the sports pages and bulletins, making front pages and news headlines. That just wouldn’t be possible now. Surely the sport taking a financial hit is a price worth paying to ensure cricket’s long-term visibility?
For all the ECB’s and Sky’s protests that the ‘behind-the-paywall’ method has worked, they clearly recognise there is a problem after they announced the Cricket World Cup final would be shown free-to-air, should England make the final.
Cricket’s Existential Threat?
It is reassuring that Sky are not completely blind to the growing frustrating among cricket fans, although they insist the protests are borne of emotion and nostalgia rather than pragmatism and economic prudence. Youngsters consume media differently these days, they say – and after footage of Ben Stokes’s incredible catch against South Africa went viral on social media, you could kind of see their point.
Cricket, though, is endangered by that very fast food, instant gratification culture – with increasingly shorter forms of the game threatening to engulf Test cricket. For a while now that has been cricket’s main battleground, but you get the sense there could be an existential threat to the sport as a whole if it remains hidden from public view. There is nothing quite like live, televised sport – free to all – for hooking a youngster for life. And with many children not owning a smartphone until the age of 10 or 11, that leaves a lot of impressionable young minds completely detached from cricket. Getting inside those young minds, by hook or by crook, could determine cricket’s future.
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