YORKSHIRE chief executive Mark Arthur is calling on the England and Wales Cricket Board to get the game back on free-to-air television in an effort to address flagging interest levels and a worrying decline in the numbers of people playing the sport.
Average crowds for last summer’s NatWest T20 Blast games fell from 6,503 the previous year to 5,772, while the numbers of recreational players aged 14-65 dropped from 908,000 to 844,000.
Arthur believes one reason is that cricket is no longer on terrestrial television – Sky holds the rights to domestic and international matches – and he is urging the governing body to take action.
“I’m very keen for cricket to return to free-to-air TV and I would urge everyone at the ECB to do their very best to find a way of getting it back on terrestrial in some form,” said Arthur, who hopes there could be some type of free-to-air T20 highlights package by 2016.
“I think it’s fundamental to the development of cricket in this country, and there is a general consensus among the county chief executives.
“Ever since 2005, when cricket came off terrestrial television, we’ve seen a decline in participation levels in the game despite a very successful England set-up.
“Figures show that seven per cent less people are playing the game of cricket, and I think the fact that we cannot expose the masses in this country to T20 cricket, in particular, is having a negative effect.”
For Arthur’s wish to come to true, the ECB would have to negotiate a deal with Sky.
The satellite broadcaster has a contract with the governing body until 2017 and the option to extend until 2019.
Any discussions would likely focus on trying to persuade Sky that it would ultimately be in their own best interests if some form of terrestrial cricket was available to boost enthusiasm for the game and, consequently, swell their own subscriptions for major matches.
Sky has held exclusive rights since the 2005 Ashes, when it was estimated that 7.4 million watched the climax to the fifth and final Test at The Oval on Channel 4 – five times more than are thought to have watched the conclusion to the 2009 Ashes series.
“Sky do a magnificent job of covering both domestic and international cricket,” stressed Arthur. “However, their reach isn’t the same as if cricket was broadcast on terrestrial television – that’s a given.
“Therefore, I do believe that with this T20 product, we need to showcase it to as many of the younger generation as we possibly can.
“Initially, I think it would have to be a highlights package, perhaps as soon as 2016, but I would like to think that, post-2019, the ECB would be stronger in their resolve and be able to guarantee even more cricket on free-to-air.”
Arthur is naturally looking out for Yorkshire’s best interests, with the club some £24m in debt and scrapping for every penny they can get. But he is a cricket lover at core and simply believes it would help the game.
“It would boost everyone – not just Yorkshire, but the whole country,” he said. “You need to profile the game on television in order to drive people into the grounds. Then, once you’ve done that, when people are unable to go to the grounds for logistical reasons, they have the opportunity to catch up on television. It just helps to keep more people involved.”
Last season’s T20 crowd figures were disappointing per se, but even more so considering the concerted marketing drive that took place nationally.
There was talk of doubling spectator numbers, while space was found in a congested calendar for regular Friday night T20 games.
Although Friday night cricket has been broadly welcomed (not least by Yorkshire, who hope to benefit further next year when new floodlights at Headingley will facilitate a more consumer-friendly start-time of 7pm), the T20 boom has certainly stalled.
Contrast that with Australia, where free-to-air Big Bash League T20 is generating huge audiences both inside the grounds and on television.
“The Big Bash has undoubtedly benefited from free-to-air coverage,” said Arthur, “and it will be very interesting to talk to Tim Bresnan about his experiences of the competition when he gets back to Yorkshire after his spell with Hobart.
“The Big Bash has certainly taken off in Australia, just as the IPL is a massive success in India, and those of us in the county game in England are keen to see that type of success.
“The T20 is certainly the competition we need to be showcasing, and it’s certainly the one that will bring the public in to Headingley next year.
“It’s also significant to me that the Football Association have taken the FA Cup back on to terrestrial television, which shows the value of free-to-air.”