Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ashes victory for viewers will plunge cricket into poverty, ECB warn

Freddie Flintoff will go down as the beefeater who rescued one of sport's crown jewels if Ashes Tests are restored to terrestrial TV.

But Flintoff, whose heroic suppression of the Aussies in both 2005 and 2009 did more for English cricket's image than any cosmetic makeover, will get little thanks from Lord's for his stirring deeds.

An independent panel's recommendation that home Ashes series should be shown on free-toair television was greeted with predictable squeals from the England & Wales Cricket Board, where the ruling blazers know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Ecb chairman Giles Clarke - the man who jumped at a Texas billionaire's casket of fools' gold - claimed the move would have a "disastrous" impact at grass roots level, taking bats and balls out of the hands of children, women and the disabled.

The panel, chaired by former Football Association executive director David Davies, has recommended to the Government that home Tests between England and Australia are restored to the list of crown jewels from 2016.

That would prevent Sky Sports, who paid £220 million last year to renew their exclusive four-year deal with ECB, from screening Tests exclusively to homes armed with satellite dishes.

And Clarke fears that being forced to sell Ashes Tests to freeto-air broadcasters would slash ECB's revenue by £40m a year, from £66m to £25m, and plunge cricket into depression.

He said: "We are in a position where the Prime Minister has, quite rightly, promised a golden decade of sport. If Mr Davies' report is implemented, there will be a decade of decay across the recreational game.

"The economic impact on cricket would be devastating. We wouldn't have a hope of coaching the 10,000 new coaches we are training in the next four years. We would have to cut that out.

"Our current estimates are that half the players at least would have to be made redundant, so we see it as being something that would take cricket back to a position of extreme poverty."

As Flintoff plundered with bat and ball in 2005, Channel Four's Ashes viewing figures peaked at 8.9 million. When Frederick the Great tweaked the kangaroo's tail again last summer on Sky Sports, however, his satellite audience was barely a quarter as much.

Armchair fans would have more sympathy with Clarke's emphasis on balance sheets ahead of cricket reaching out to a wider audience if counties did not squander so much money on Kolpak players - mainly South Africans - who qualify as non-overseas signings because of spurious European passports.

Half of the 18 first-class counties rely on annual £1.5 million handouts from Lord's to survive. It would not necessarily be such a bad thing if reduced income forced them to concentrate more resources on home-grown youngsters than smuggling expensive imports through the back door.

The Davies Report will also flush out terrestrial TV channels who have paid only lip service to cricket for a decade.

Since home Tests were de-listed from the crown jewel untouchables in 1998, the BBC have shown the national summer game little short of contempt.

The Corporation did not even bother to bid for televised cricket last year, yet they found £200m of licence fee-payers' money to blow on the polluting bedlam of Formula One.

Ecb chief executive David Collier admitted: "It was a surprise that their priority for investment went in that direction, but that is something for the broadcaster to answer."

Cricket was by no means the only sport up in arms at the Davies Report, which recommended that the Epsom Derby, rugby league's Challenge Cup final and the Winter Olympics should all be sacrificed from crown jewels.

And the proposal to slap a terrestrial TV-only preservation order on the whole Wimbledon tennis fortnight and Rugby World Cup was also condemned by their governing bodies.

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