This summer was due to be a defining season for cricket in the UK, with the inaugural year of the ECB’s new franchise competition, The Hundred, and a select number of these matches, as well as a handful of men’s and women’s internationals, scheduled to be broadcast live on the BBC. This new five-year deal due to start this summer also includes highlights of all England internationals, switching from Channel 5 which has held these rights since 2006. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic however has meant the postponement of The Hundred until 2021 and the loss of three months of the domestic and international cricket season so far this summer. The financial impact of this delay on both the ECB and professional counties has been discussed by many, including ECB chief executive Tom Harrison.
However, some good news is that the men’s international season is due to commence on 8th July, with a three-match Test series against the West Indies behind closed doors. While it has not yet been confirmed what the season will look like beyond this, the suggested schedule for England Men, if all planned matches are to go ahead and all Tests stretch five days, will include one more cricketing day than 2018, highlighting the remainder of the summer is likely to be jam-packed for players and fans alike. By analysing the potential impact of the ‘unforgettable summer’ of 2019 and our 2020 TV audience predictions for the BBC highlights, this article outlines how this year can still be a breakthrough year for cricket in the UK.
‘The year of Ben Stokes’ - 2019 as a Catalyst for Growth
Fans got a taste of live free-to-air cricket in 2019, with the ICC Cricket World Cup final last July airing on Channel 4 in addition to Sky Sports, the first time live cricket has been broadcast on a free-to-air channel for 14 years. This unforgettable match, resulting in England being crowned champions following a nail-biting super-over, drew the largest UK audience for a cricket match on record (since 2002). Google searches for cricket in the UK also saw a 15-year peak as a result of England’s triumph, as shown below.
This final and these figures alone would have been sufficient evidence to show the success of the 2019 season in attracting new viewers to the sport. However, Ben Stokes’ heroics at Headingley in the third Ashes Test last August further helped to showcase the game. The fourth day of this Test, where Stokes played a remarkable innings to help England pull-off a shock win and remain in contention to regain The Ashes, was watched by more viewers than any other Test day on Sky Sports, the highest audience for a Test since the last time the format aired on free-to-air in 2005. This broadcast was certainly the standout day for the series but it is also worth noting the series as a whole was the most watched Ashes series this decade.
There are already examples of audience growth following on from this record-breaking summer for the sport. The T20 Blast last season, for example, received the highest group stage average audience for the tournament this decade, and many counties announced record ticket sales, with average attendance up 15% from 2018. While it is difficult to quantify the extent to which the ICC CWC 19 and The Ashes contributed to these record attendances, our TV audience model suggests that 12% of T20 Blast audiences last year were as a result of the World Cup and the increased interest surrounding the game. More recently, England’s away tour to South Africa earlier this year received record-breaking audiences, not only when comparing to other away series but home fixtures too. The 2nd and 3rd IT20 matches of the tour in February received the two highest audiences for bilateral IT20s, home or away, on record (since 2009). As these are two of very few cricket matches to air live since last summer, the impact of 2019 on this large audience growth for an away tour cannot be denied and despite the three-month hiatus, we anticipate similar high audiences to continue into the shortened 2020 season.
Highlights of England internationals this year will switch from Channel 5 to BBC Two, the first time cricket will be shown on the BBC since 1999. We looked into typical audience trends on both these channels to calculate the predicted viewership uplift as a result of this broadcast change. We found that the largest variation between Channel 5 and BBC Two audiences came during prime time (5-10pm), where BBC Two audiences are 81% higher than on Channel 5 compared to 10% outside of these hours. This viewership trend means that Test highlights, starting at 7pm following the end of each day’s play, are expected to see the largest uplift as result of the broadcaster change. A smaller uplift is anticipated for day/night ODI or IT20 highlights as such broadcasts will start later in the evening where the BBC Two increase is lower. For the West Indies Test series starting this week for example, we predict BBC highlights audiences to be 99% higher than if they were to air on Channel 5. For the provisional 3-match IT20 series against Pakistan, the expected Channel 5 to BBC uplift is 22%, a lower increase rate due to most of the live broadcasts going into the evening and therefore, a late night start time for the highlights. The predicted Channel 5 to BBC uplift for the other provisional series this season can be seen in the chart below. Ignoring any in-game factors, such as a repeat of Ben Stokes’ heroics last summer causing further audience growth, these predictions show the increased reach of cricket, particularly Test cricket, in the UK as a result of this broadcaster change.
*series with no confirmed date yet based on the same amount of matches, weekend fixtures and day/night fixtures as the original 2020 schedule
This increased reach on the BBC means more eyes on the game and therefore higher brand value generated for partners. This is good news for the ECB from a sponsor perspective as they can continue to deliver value to partners in spite of the shortened season. There is also perhaps the opportunity for additional in-ground asset allocation for brands due to matches taking place behind closed doors. Further to this, the ICC is allowing additional shirt sponsorship inventory, with teams able to display branding on Test shirt fronts for the first time in a 12-month long bid to help cricket organisations recover from the financial impact of the pandemic.
TV audiences for the restart of other live sport in the last few months also helps us to predict what is in store for 2020 cricket audiences. The first sports property to return behind closed doors was the Bundesliga in May, with record UK audiences tuning in to watch its recommencement. Audiences did see a sharp fall however following the first weekend, highlighting the key challenge for many sports properties in ensuring prolonged engagement with the behind closed doors production, rather than drawing in inquisitive one-time viewers. The return of the Premier League however has shown that the appetite for live UK football has not dwindled during the break, with the Merseyside derby on June 21st setting a new TV audience record for the Premier League on Sky Sports. This sustained interest in the game, as well as the addition of four matches airing live on BBC, means that we expect more people to watch the 2019/20 Premier League season than ever before. The impact of the 2019 cricketing summer as well as the switch to the BBC for highlights puts England Cricket in a similar position of potential growth.
The fact that Easter Saturday highlights of Ben Stokes’ famous 2019 Ashes innings was one of the most watched non-live broadcasts on Sky Sports during lockdown shows that viewers’ appetite for cricket has shown no sign of waning during this extended break, and the legacy of that ‘unforgettable summer’ in 2019 continues. This combined with the clear positive impact of the move to BBC from Channel 5 shows that 2020 still has the capacity to grow interest in the game and play a pivotal role in the ECB’s 5-year plan to ‘inspire generations’.