Cricket’s broadcast rights: Locking in the future or locking out the future?

This week, Japan defeated Papua New Guinea by eight wickets in Vanuatu in the final of the 2012 Pepsi ICC East Asia-Pacific Women’s Championship. Now while that result may not be of any pressing interest to you, what is significant is that this and tournaments like it, are taking place all over the world.

It’s a testament to the International Cricket Council’s global development programme, which began in 1997, and needless to say it costs a lot of money to run. While Pepsi is the major sponsor of the Development Programme, there is no question that it and many other functions of the ICC, would not perform effectively, if at all, without the major injection of income from broadcast rights.

ESPN Star Sports currently hold the global broadcast rights to all ICC events in an eight-year deal concluding with the World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand in February and March 2015. Already the ICC is setting out the landscape for future events under its banner in preparation for the anticipated bidding war in the next two years. But in setting out a detailed program for broadcast executives to mull over, the ICC could be compromising the sport’s very development.

At their last meeting in April, the ICC Executive Board announced that the organisation had “already commenced planning for its rights cycle post 2015”. The planning already sees the unveiling of a meticulous program of ICC-owned international events for the eight years through till 2023. The World Twenty20 series set down every two years, 16 teams in the men’s event with 39 games all to be televised. A World Test Championship in 2017 and again in 2021 – both set for a four-team knockout format. And the fifty-over World Cup is, so it appears, locked in for 2019 and 2023 in the same, controversial, 10-team 48-game format planned for 2015.

All these crisp sets of numbers makes it easier to work out the number of days of ICC-owned elite cricket between 2015 and 2023. The number of hours (less rain and early finishes). The amount of advertising time. All of which helps the broadcast companies in preparing rights bids worth at least one, and perhaps more, billions of dollars.

But extrapolating a formula for world cricket forward eleven years to 2023 is either bold, foolhardy or desperate. One hopes there will be flexibility built in to the final rights contract allowing for evolution of the game, expansion of its boundaries, and the emergence of new technologies.

Look back eleven years to 2001. Twenty20 was still two years away from its conception, women were four years away from being governed by the ICC. State-of-the-art mobile technology went by the acronym WAP.

We’ve already seen the pitfalls of inflexible contracts when the ICC was forced to abandon plans to launch its Test Championship, stuck instead at ESPN Star’s contractual insistence with one last Champions Trophy. And the 48-game magnitude of the World Cup has less to do with sorting out the best teams than it does with keeping high-(TV)-rating nations such as India, Pakistan and England in competition as long as possible.

One of the biggest tasks for David Richardson when he takes over in July as chief executive of the ICC will be to secure the best possible rights deal for 2015-2023. The future of the ICC’s development programs will be financially secured, but could the evolution of the sport be locked away for eight years?

(This column originally appeared on iSportconnect)

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