Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Session 2005-06

31 January 2006


ASHES TO ASHES

The ‘Ashes fever’ which gripped the nation last summer might never be witnessed again, say MPs. A report by the Culture Media & Sport Committee has condemned the deal struck by the ECB which means the next Ashes series will not be available on terrestrial TV.

MPs concluded that in awarding an exclusive deal to BSkyB, the ECB and the Government were in clear breach of an earlier agreement that aimed to ensure some live cricket would remain on free-to-air television.

The Committee criticised the Government and the ECB for failing to honour this promise and has called for the next deal to involve a mixture of broadcasters.

FAILURE OF THE BBC TO BID

In their report, MPs conclude that: “Without a renewed interest from terrestrial broadcasters and a commitment from the ECB to maintain a substantial proportion of live coverage on free-to-air television, the Committee is concerned that live Test cricket may never again be shown free to air.”

MPs criticised the BBC and ITV in their failure to bid against BSkyb for the contract, arguing that this ‘restricted the choice available to the ECB and significantly reduced the amount the ECB could obtain from the bidding process’.

The Committee also took the strong view that the ECB did not do enough to ensure that a non-exclusive deal was brokered. “We are concerned about the ECB’s timidity in not insisting upon a non-exclusive deal. A clear signal from the outset that an exclusive deal was not on the table may have substantially altered negotiating positions in the ECB’s favour.”

The ECB were also criticised for failing to encourage bids for the highlights package, particularly when it became clear that live coverage was not going to be available on channels one to five.

THE GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT

During the inquiry, MPs on the select committee also investigated the so-called 'gentleman's agreement' struck in 1998 by the former culture secretary, Chris Smith, and former ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin (who both gave evidence to the Committee in November 2005).

The agreement meant cricket was moved from the protected "crown jewels" A-list of sporting events to the B-list, which allowed the sale of cricket rights to satellite television. Lord Smith and MacLaurin both told the Committee that this was done on the understanding that the majority of live Test cricket would still remain on terrestrial television.

MPs concluded that: “It is very evident to the Committee no matter what description it is given and no matter how its precise ramifications are interpreted, the understanding between Lord Smith and Lord MacLaurin constituted an agreement. And the content of that agreement was unequivocal: live Test match cricket played in England was not to be removed completely from free to air TV. What is equally evident to this Committee is that the terms of that agreement have manifestly been breached by the ECB with the tacit approval of the DCMS.”

The Committee also noted that the gentleman’s agreement was non binding in any legal sense and recommended that such informal arrangements should not be used by the Department in the future. They also criticised the Department for remaining silent on the issue and for failing to honour their commitments towards the protection of public interest.

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE…

Committee members don’t want to return to the days when cricket was starved of funds. They noted that none of the witnesses before the inquiry - including the ‘Keep Cricket Free’ Campaign, believe that a simple reversal of the decision, would have beneficial consequences for the future funding of the national game.

The Committee concludes that: “Ultimately the decision as to what is best for cricket must rest with the ECB; it is they who are best qualified to judge what is in the long term interests of the game, balancing considerations of income from broadcast rights, investment in grass-roots cricket and the national game and the effects of restricting the size of the television audience.”

Furthermore, such has been the uproar about the ECB’s decision, MPs believe there is the potential misconception among cricket fans that re-listing in Group A would automatically lead to all live test matches being shown on free to air TV. It would not. “Test series are, by their nature, difficult for broadcasters to schedule, whilst also being fair to the non-cricket audience. This was the fundamental reason for the decision to more Test matches to Group B and reasoning, if not the execution, remains sound.”

MPs also noted the potential damage of re-listing in Group A is too great a risk to take; the vast sums of money poured into the sport and the achievements of the England teams in recent years would all be put in jeopardy.

Commenting on the report, Committee Chairman, John Whittingdale, said:

“The failure of the Government, the ECB and the terrestrial broadcasters to ensure that the next Ashes series is at least in part broadcast free-to-air has rightly enraged many fans and players at every level of the game. The so-called Gentleman's agreement, while well-intentioned, completely failed to deliver its objective and cannot ever be relied upon again.

Nobody wishes to see cricket starved of funds or the tremendous progress of the last few years put at risk. Nevertheless, far more could have been done by the ECB to achieve a deal that both provided the money needed to develop the sport and allowed the millions of cricket enthusiasts to continue to watch the England team perform. Having originally made clear that they considered that the loss of all free-to-air live broadcasting would be unacceptable, the Government is also culpable for standing by and doing nothing to intervene.

For the long-term future of the Game, the next deal must ensure that some live Test cricket is broadcast free-to-air. Much of the onus will be on the ECB to achieve this but we also look to the broadcasters to take up the challenge.”