Test Cricket finally returned to Free-to-Air television – but did it live up to expectations?

After weeks of speculation over the broadcast rights for the highly anticipated 2021 India v England Test Series, cricket fans were treated to the long-awaited news that Test cricket was finally returning to Free-to-Air television on Channel 4. Though this was positive news, it still beckoned the question – is it enough? Are the public still revelling from Ben Stokes’ brilliance in 2019? Would this compensate for the postponement of the 2020 launch of cricket’s latest franchise-based phenomenon, The Hundred, and provide a boost in interest and engagement going into a hectic summer for UK cricket?

Our monthly research tracker* highlights that 49% of cricket fans have a Sky Sports subscription and therefore regular access to live cricket. That leaves more than half of the cricket fan base in the UK, equating to approximately 9.7m people, who have had the opportunity to watch live cricket for the first time in 16 years as a result of this Free-to-Air coverage. YouGov’s Buzz score also showed that the Channel 4 coverage certainly increased attention and conversation on Test Cricket, with the series receiving the highest UK Buzz score** of any sporting event or league in February, despite competing with the likes of the EPL, Six Nations and the NFL Super Bowl.

Nothing Beats Free-to-Air

England’s previous tour of India in 2016 was broadcast on Sky Sports, and hence, provides the perfect benchmark to measure the impact of airing cricket on Free-to-Air rather than paid television. Comparing the 2021 Channel 4 series without the Day/Night Test, which started at 9am rather than 4am for the other three Tests, to the 2016 Sky Sports series ensures that the start times are the same across both, with the only variables being Free-to-Air vs Sky Sports, and on-field performance.

Barring Joe Root’s magnificent double hundred in the 1st Test, the 2021 series saw the English batsmen succumb to a spin bowling masterclass by the Indians, as the average days per Test went from 4.8 in 2016 to 3.5 in 2021, resulting in less competitive and generally less exciting action. Despite this, the Channel 4 coverage for Tests 1, 2, and 4 saw a massive 338% increase in average live audience from 2016 on Sky Sports.

To further highlight the impact of Free-to-Air, live viewing hours per day offer a clearer comparison by accounting for the significantly shorter series - 24 days in 2016 vs 14 days in 2021. Channel 4 beats Sky Sports again with this metric, seeing an incredible 329% increase from 2016. The 2021 series also saw a 12.2% TV share on average, meaning 1 in 8 people who were watching TV at the time, were watching the cricket, compared to 1 in 37 in 2016 on Sky.

A clear benefit to Free-to-Air coverage is the ability to gain new viewers that otherwise may not have watched. The cricket on Channel 4 was no different, with 51% of those that watched at least three minutes of the cricket not having viewed at least 30 consecutive minutes of any Pay-TV Sky Sports channel in 2020 – a likely indication that these viewers do not subscribe to Sky Sports. Females – one of ECB’s key target demographics – accounted for 42% of this group, which is significantly higher than the Sky Sports average in 2021 of 28%.

As we approach a busy period of cricket in summer 2021, the ECB will want to capitalise on the Free-to-Air coverage by converting this new audience into regular cricket viewers and Sky Sports will hope to gain some new subscribers – similarly to after the Cricket World Cup 2019 final aired on Channel 4 and More4. 16% of those that watched at least three minutes of the final’s Free-to-Air coverage went on to watch at least three minutes of live cricket coverage on Sky Sports in 2020. 16% of this group, which amounted to just over a million viewers, also watched at least 30 minutes consecutively of Pay-TV Sky Sports channels in the 12 months directly following the Cricket World Cup 2019 final. Both the ECB and Sky Sports will hope these numbers increase after the Free-to-Air cricket coverage so far in 2021.

Two Days of Pink Ball Carnage

After two one-sided affairs, the series was perfectly poised at 1-1 going into the historic day/night test in Ahmedabad’s brand-new Narendra Modi stadium. With play starting at a much more favourable 9am GMT, the scene was set for a grand spectacle, but what transpired left viewers, pundits, and especially former England captain turned Twitter enthusiast, Michael Vaughan, stunned. The action-packed game was over within two days and went down in history as the shortest Test match post-World War II, putting the weekend plans of many fans to bed.

Regardless, let’s see how those two days of carnage measured up against the England vs India Home Test series in 2018 which was broadcast on Sky Sports and where play started at a comparable 11am GMT. Yet again, the numbers strongly favoured Channel 4 as the average live audience saw an increase of 129% from 2018, and live viewing hours per day were up 138%, further emphasising the impact of Free-to-Air cricket on public engagement.

When compared to the other three Tests in the 2021 series, the day/night Test saw a 61% higher average live audience. With the added draw of being different to conventional Test cricket, the day/night Test – played with a pink ball and under lights – also attracted more of the ECB’s current target audience groups, with notable increases in viewership share for women (+8%), U16s (+2%), and 16-34-year olds (+3%). While the more favourable start time is a key factor here too, these figures show that day/night Test cricket is fulfilling its purpose of attracting a wider demographic, captivating the interest of the younger generations, and reaching more women, a trend that the ECB will hope to continue into the summer season.

What Could Have Been

Don’t let these audience figures hide the fact that the series, as a whole, was largely disappointing for England. The English batsmen failed to adapt to the pitches, resulting in four one-sided games. As viewership was largely affected by England’s on-field performance, with audiences around Root’s double hundred seeing big uplifts, we could have seen much higher numbers had the series been more competitive.

The Covid-19 social bubble effect which the players were restricted to, meant that a few big names were missing from both sides, either rested or injured. Had both teams been at full strength, the added draw of these big names could have further boosted viewership, and perhaps made for a more exciting and competitive series.

Finally, the broadcast rights saga before the series, where at one point it looked like we would all need Disney+ subscriptions, caused public uncertainty on where the series was going to be broadcast. Had the decision to air it on Channel 4 been made earlier, it perhaps would have allowed for a better build up to the series, which then could have potentially reached more viewers.

The Impact on Channel 4

The positive impact of this coverage was not only felt by the ECB and the UK cricket fan base, but also by Channel 4. The broadcaster experienced its highest amount of Google searches since 2019 in the first week of February, when the 1st Test of the series began. Given the last-minute nature of the announcement, with the news coming only days before the start of the series, searches spiked just before the series was due to start.

This is a phenomenon that Channel 4 has certainly experienced before too, most notably in 2019 when they aired the ICC Cricket World Cup Final, thanks to a last minute agreement with Sky, alongside the British Grand Prix, the only live Grand Prix to be shown on UK Free-to-Air TV that year. According to Channel 4’s annual report, this combination of two major sporting events on the same day resulted in the broadcaster’s highest daily audience since 2012. While this year’s Test series cannot boast such large audiences and did not break any broadcaster records, it certainly drew more viewers to the channel than it typically sees in the early hours of the morning. Many believe the early start time is what deterred the pay-TV giants of Sky Sports and BT from putting their name in the hat for the rights, with limited value in terms of subscriber uptake as a result of the unsociable start time. This allowed Channel 4 to strike a late deal, and therefore the opportunity to air live sport at 4am until midday GMT, a time of day where typically repeat, lower value programming airs. Such broadcasts generally receive a smaller audience in comparison to the coveted prime time slot in the evening so it was certainly a win-win scenario for Channel 4, with none of their flagship programmes and their timeslots impacted by this addition. The chart below shows that the average hourly audience on Channel 4, across all hour slots, saw an audience boost when the cricket was on compared to non-cricket viewing at this time in 2021 so far.

*non-Test match days included programming from Jan 1st 2021 to March 11th 2021

Viewership in the hours of 7am and 8am saw the biggest uplift as a result of the Test match coverage, a time where re-runs of US sitcoms are typically aired, such as Everyone Loves Raymond and The Big Bang Theory. Covid-19 restrictions currently in place also meant many people were working from home, giving them the opportunity to watch later into the morning than if they were commuting to workplaces. This will be a pleasing statistic for the ECB too, with people tuning in as they wake up, as opposed to the main boost coming in the early morning slots by avid fans who have temporarily switched allegiance from Sky Sports. Audiences in the late morning were much more likely to be casual viewers new to cricket, skewing younger and more female than the early hours. 11% of viewers between 10 and 12pm were aged 16-34 for example, compared to 5% between 4am and 7am. This is a key target audience for the ECB and suggests that, despite the unfavourable start time, the move allowed cricket to reach more of the people they are trying to target in their current strategic plan.

Conclusion

Despite the clear boost in engagement for Channel 4 coverage compared to previous Sky Sports coverage, the one-sided nature of the series leaves us wondering – what could have been? Nevertheless, the significant increase in viewership from Sky, the ability to reach new audiences, and the positive impact for Channel 4, shows that Test cricket returning to Free-to-Air intermittently was a welcome boost for English cricket that for a brief stint, put the game more into the public eye.

The benefits of making cricket more accessible are evident already, with the IT20 and ODI series on Sky Sports that immediately followed the Test series seeing record levels of viewership. The ODI series decider last Sunday saw the highest ever average audience for a bilateral ODI, with the 5th IT20 the second most watched bilateral IT20 on the channel ever. Whether the success of the series will perhaps spark a return for home Tests to Free-to-Air in future ECB rights cycles remains to be seen, but its positive audience impact cannot be denied and the ECB will hope for a similar story for the select IT20 and Hundred matches airing live on BBC this summer.

* Futures Market Landscape Tracker runs on a monthly basis to 1,000 nationally representative respondents in the UK, investigating attitudes and behaviours in relation to sport and entertainment media consumption. **Buzz score based on respondents hearing something positive about a sporting event/league over the past two weeks.

Source: BARB