Opening up: ECB chief executive Tom Harrison on cricket’s broadcast evolution

After over a decade behind the paywall, the England and Wales Cricket Board signed a new broadcast deal in the summer which ensured the return of live coverage on free-to-air TV while also delivering a significant boost in income. Chief executive Tom Harrison explains how the agreements are fundamental to the search for a more open and diverse fanbase.

Opening up: ECB chief executive Tom Harrison on cricket’s broadcast evolution

English cricket has historically been defined by its hierarchies, memberships, and captaincies. Its boundaries, for want of a better word.

Nowhere has this been truer, down the years, than at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, home for two centuries to plenty that is glorious and some that is notorious about the country’s summer game.

 In the building just next door, however, Tom Harrison does not have his own office. No one at today’s England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) does, so the chief executive sits in the bullpen with the rest of his team. That is information that his staff are quick to share on a bright Friday morning in late September, as a meeting room is prepared for SportsPro.

It is early enough that there is no fresh milk yet in the fridge, but late enough that a handful of staff are already at their desks. At the back of the room, a former England Test captain and three-time Ashes winner, clad in a zip-neck jumper and shirt, reclines in his chair as he talks to a colleague.

Open-plan: the link is easily made to the image that the ECB has been trying to project since Harrison was installed as chief executive in January 2015, when he began his second stint with the governing body. In between, he had worked in Singapore for what was ESPN Star Sports, and oversaw global media rights sales at IMG for Cricket Australia, Cricket South Africa and the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Harrison joined a group in a state of suffocation. On the field, the senior team’s results had collapsed and their playing style had turned arid. Off it, there had been a running catalogue of missteps and miscommunications. Revenues were healthy, but fans were growing alienated.

England's women won a Cricket World Cup on home soil in July on one of the most memorable days of the British sporting year

Change swept through the ECB leadership. In March 2015, Harrison was joined by a new chairman – Costcutter supermarket founder Colin Graves, who arrived full-time from Yorkshire after two years as ECB deputy chair. Andrew Strauss, the aforementioned former national team captain, was appointed as director of cricket for the England men’s team.

“We thought through it long and hard and came up with a very decisive strategy on getting the right people in the right places,” Harrison recalls. “And that flowed into the executive team as well, that we needed to get the right people around the business to help us get and successfully carry out this vision that we were setting for the business. 2016 was very much about creating that strategy for the game, and bringing the game along with us on this journey to try and make cricket a bigger and more relevant sport in this country for more people. And then ’17 was really about starting to deliver against those objectives.”

It would be a stretch to suggest a reinvention of English cricket in that time but recent months have given ample opportunity to demonstrate a fresh outlook. In June, England and Wales hosted the ICC Champions Trophy – the punchy men’s secondary tournament in the 50-over game. The hosts impressed with some free-spirited performances and were heavily favoured until a semi-final defeat by Pakistan, who went on to beat India in the final in one of the most-watched TV sports events of the year.

Test series wins followed against South Africa and West Indies, with the latter graced by the country’s first day-night five-day game at Edgbaston in Birmingham. Encouragingly for the ECB and its ambitions of a more open cricketing community, the highlight of the whole summer did not feature the men’s team at all. It was England’s women taking the Cricket World Cup title in July, beating India in a thrilling final in front of a sold-out Lord’s.

It has, Harrison says, been “an incredibly busy summer”, one which is not yet over as he settles into a window-side armchair. England still have one-day internationals to play against West Indies until the end of September. More challengingly, vice captain Ben Stokes is days away from an arrest for actual bodily harm after an early-hours incident in Bristol. The fracas is caught on camera and circulated by the press, though the details are not as cut and dried as they first appear. At the time of writing, Stokes is not being considered for selection as a police investigation continues.

For Harrison, the rest of the summer has been spent executing strategies to “address declining or stagnating participation”, a problem he identifies as common to most team sports “over the last ten or 12 years”. The in-venue experience for supporters has also been on the agenda.

Without question, though, the commercial landmark of the year has been one of the more eye-catching sets of deals signed by any rights holder in 2017 – the five-year domestic TV contracts the ECB confirmed on the last day of June that will bring in UK£1.1 billion from 2020 to the end of 2024.

Pay-TV market leader Sky Sports, which has been the exclusive UK live TV home of all professional cricket played in England since 2006, will remain the ECB’s senior broadcast partner. Meanwhile, the publicly funded BBC, whose Test Match Special radio programme and digital near-live clips are currently the primary point of contact for millions of British fans, will show live games on television for the first time since 1999, as live English cricket returns to domestic free-to-air TV after what will have grown to a 15-year absence.

For the ECB, the news will have been met with excitement – and no little relief. This was by far the most significant test of Harrison’s commercial skill to date and, given his background, few excuses could have been made had he come up short. After a decade of almost pro forma rights deals with the BBC, free-to-air highlights partner Channel 5 and Sky Sports – whose most recent two-year extension to 2019 came by way of a contract option – a new approach was taken to deliver the significant uplift required.

You’re not thinking about the deal that you’re doing, you’re always thinking about the next deal.

Underpinning the offer to broadcasters was an eight-team domestic Twenty20 tournament, set to launch in 2020, which earned the blessing of England’s professional county teams in April but will sit outside the existing county set-up.

“We have the backing of the game to go and do something very different with that,” Harrison explains, “which is fundamental in us driving a new business plan going forward which is both around international cricket but also around domestic cricket, where we have control. In international cricket you only have control to a certain extent.”

The new deals, Harrison says, were the result of “a long process and a very well-planned one”.

“It was a long journey,” he adds. “But for us it was about three things: it was about reach, revenue and relevance. We needed to ensure that what we came out with was something that was effectively the catalyst to enable the game to get from where it is now to where we see it going, where it’s capable of going if, as I said, we do all of these things about thinking differently about the opportunity of cricket, about stripping away the formality of what cricket means to some fans in this country. The broadcast deal was going to be a key catalyst in helping us deliver that.”

Harrison with former Ashes-winning captain and ECB director of England cricket Andrew Strauss

The sales procedure, as Harrison describes it, was “thorough and robust”. “We put an evaluation panel together which had independent advisors on it, which gave bidders confidence that probity was going to be at the heart of our proposition,” he says. “And we were able to create a moment where people knew we were coming to market with something compelling and something that everybody wanted to put their best foot forward to try and win.”

One thing Harrison’s team needed to be able to count on was a breadth of market interest. Such is the cost of UK Premier League rights – Sky Sports is effectively paying UK£11 million a game in the current cycle, with BT Sport laying out UK£7.6 million – that rights holders lower down the scale are left to wonder at their own importance. Some rights have been relinquished with relatively little resistance by the big two; others have taken on greater strategic consequence.

The ECB hoped to be in the second category. Sky Sports has made little secret down the years of the fact that it sees cricket as perhaps its primary driver of subscriptions after Premier League soccer. But England will actually play their next international games – including the celebrated Ashes series – on rival BT Sport, as part of a five-year deal that broadcaster has in place with Cricket Australia.

“Any rights holder wants a competitive TV market when you go to market,” Harrison says. “You want competition to help drive interest and to drive the revenue. I think what is really important, though, is what we were able to successfully do which is to excite pay-TV, free-to-air, and to a certain extent, social media players about what our plans were. So this was about selling a vision which was about what cricket is capable of doing over the next few years.”

In the event it was Sky Sports – “the best broadcaster of cricket in the world” – that retained the rights, building a new package that included a significant commitment to stimulating participation. Harrison reveals that the ECB had also been privy to Sky’s plans for its new ‘vertical’ single-sport channels, which were launched in July, and was aware that cricket was among the sports singled out for exhibition.

This was about selling a vision which was about what cricket is capable of doing over the next few years.

The new Sky Sports Cricket channel is a powerful showcase but it will also clearly demonstrate the effect cricket has on the broadcaster’s bottom line. That may bring some pressure, but Harrison senses an opportunity.

“Having a strategy which enables intelligence to feed directly back to your stakeholders about how relevant you are, I think, is a very, very good thing,” he suggests. “And I think that it will give us huge confidence that the decisions that we make, we can measure that very directly.”

That knowledge, as Harrison sees it, will be invaluable to the ECB in understanding its audience dynamics when it comes to sell TV rights again in a few years’ time.

“It’s very clear – and this is something that my background has taught me – that whenever you’re going to  market with a property, you’re not thinking about the deal that you’re doing, you’re always thinking about the next deal,” he says. “You’re always saying, ‘What are you doing now to ensure that the next time you go to market, you’re in better shape than you are now?’ And that was very much the backdrop to us thinking about the future in a very long-term way, and you see that coming through in everything that we’re doing.

“The focus on south Asian communities, the focus on women, building a new T20, making sure that the World Cup in 2019 is a fantastic platform for growth for cricket in this country, the investment in our teams to make sure that we’re always fighting at the top of the rankings for all three formats: these are all critical things for us to ensure that the next time we go to market we’re ensuring the next five years or the next period of English cricket’s future.”

The inspiration for the new TV deals – of a bigger, more open and diverse national audience for the game – manifested itself for Harrison during that women’s final back in July. 

“The whole noise was different,” he says. “The whole noise of Lord’s that day was different. The pattern of sales on that day, if we look under the bonnet of the data that sits behind it, is fascinating: more coffee sold than ever before, it wasn’t all about alcohol sales; more kids playing on the nursery ground than ever; and just a complete engagement in what was going on on the field for women’s cricket.”

Despite plans for a major new domestic T20 tournament from 2020, Harrison still sees England primarily as an international cricket market

As well as a selection of men’s and women’s T20 internationals, the BBC will show ten live games a year from the new T20 tournament and from the Kia Women’s Super League. Its return as a live broadcaster comes at the end of a long, sometimes bitter conversation throughout the game about the merits and flaws of the existing TV arrangement – one that has raged almost throughout the period since England’s last live appearance on free-to-air, against Australia on Channel 4, in the heady summer of 2005.

Harrison himself had warned against cricket becoming “the richest, most irrelevant sport in this country” when confirming talks with free-to-air players earlier this year, but he views the initial move behind the paywall on different terms.

“When I came into this role nearly three years ago, the foundations of the game were strong,” he says. “Now what’s at the heart of those foundations is the decision some time ago to concentrate on revenue, to ensure that the game was in a place to be able to deliver on what we have now. So to look at it through a context now is not really fair and it’s not really relevant. If you look at what’s been achieved with the revenue that’s been generated, it’s given us this opportunity now to look at reach and revenue together to ensure that we’re growing the game.”

Back in mid 2017, in keeping with the ‘Cricket Unleashed’ strategy the ECB has developed, there was significant importance attached to finding a free-to-air partner which could deliver reach as well as revenue. That, says Harrison, was as important to prospective buyers in the pay-TV sector as it was to the governing body.

“The other thing we were seeing,” he adds, “was a dramatic response to our broadcast rights clips, and a growing partnership with the BBC which was very exciting because I think some of the challenges that cricket was facing in some ways reflected some of the challenges that the BBC was facing. So some of the communities that we were trying to reach through cricket were some of the communities that the BBC finds hard to reach through its network.”

It is telling, and indicative of an age of more crowded schedules, that English cricket will re-emerge on the public broadcaster in its shortest, three-hour format. Harrison notes that UK free-to-air TV “hasn’t really had a crack” at T20, which debuted just over two years before England’s last live appearance on free-to-air TV. The IPL and the Caribbean Premier League have made appearances on terrestrial digital networks ITV4 and Dave respectively, but the new deal will still be seen in most quarters as a significant landmark.

“This was an opportunity for free-to-air to do something different with a format that had never been on terrestrial TV in prime time,” Harrison says. “That opportunity is tremendously exciting. It’s still very challenging for free-to-air TV to schedule long-form cricket – either ODI or Test match cricket. That’s not to say that that can’t happen in the future, but for this particular moment in time where, traditionally to pay-TV, the BBC are losing rights, this was a moment where they could celebrate something returning – a major sport coming back with significant investment behind it.”

The ECB is putting its new TV arrangements at the centre of an attempt to appeal to a broader audience

Details of the new T20 tournament are still to be fully thrashed out. The ECB is currently in discussions with counties about prospective home venues for the new teams, a process that must also take into account hosting rights for international fixtures. Harrison says that a plan to take the tournament to the end of its first year is coming together and includes “more than 100 workstreams”.

What is clearer at this point is the ECB’s motivation for putting a tournament like this together. “If you look at the patterns of what other boards around the world have done,” Harrison explains, “they’ve been successful at using domestic T20 to drive a new business plan that they have more control over. With all of the shifting elements around international cricket it was really, really important that we gave ourselves this balanced business going forward instead of being entirely reliant on international cricket for deriving our revenue.”

Earlier in September, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had put together a milestone TV deal of its own, delivering massive new revenues by selling the global media rights to the IPL to Star Sports for around US$2.55 billion over five years. That agreement marks the very first which values a club cricket tournament more highly, per game, than international matches. Harrison, though, sees that as an outlier, a product of the unique scale and fervour of the subcontinental fanbase.

England, he says, remains an international cricket market, and he is watching with intent to see how innovations such as four-day Test matches are received.

“Every time cricket has been challenged with adapting and modernising and coming up with something in the face of a changing environment,” he argues, “it’s managed to do it. And I don’t think Test cricket should be any different from that.”

To be brutally honest, I felt that when I threw my hat in the ring to do this job, if they went for someone with my skillset then it would maybe say something about the direction of travel of this game.

Innovation is also a defining factor in the broadcast sector in 2017, and it may be that the new TV deals signed by the ECB are the last of their kind. Before going to market this time, Harrison and his colleagues “talked to a huge number of people through this process, understanding where OTT was going, understanding where social media platforms were going”.

“We spent a lot of time on the east and west coasts of the US,” he continues, “understanding their sports strategies, understanding their live content strategies. Obviously that conversation is ongoing and I’m absolutely certain that over the next five years there will be things happening with new players entering the market, new ways of distributing the content, new distributors coming on stream that give rise for us to be excited about the future. It’s hard to see how there are fewer players going forward than there are now.”

However the market develops, Harrison views the goal for the ECB as putting cricket in a position where by 2024, it is “a slam-dunk tier-one property for pay-TV, free-to-air and OTT”. In the years ahead, that will mean continuing to open the borders of the game and broaden its audience. It will mean producing England teams that excite and prosper, and delivering an outstanding Cricket World Cup in 2019, just before the new TV deal kicks in. 

There is plenty of ground still to cover but this, after all, is why Harrison accepted the ECB’s call in the first place. 

“Why did I do it?,” he says, asked about his return to Lord’s in 2015. “To be brutally honest, I felt that when I threw my hat in the ring to do this job, if they went for someone with my skillset then it would maybe say something about the direction of travel of this game. Because I’ve always had a very ambitious and unapologetic view of where cricket can be in this country, and was always going to follow a bold, ambitious plan.

“I’m very fortunate to have an incredibly supportive chairman who’s led the game in a very collaborative way and in a very positive direction, and that relationship has enabled us to make some progress in this regard. So look, I’m very privileged to be in this role and I understand the responsibility that comes with it and the fact that, actually, such are the tails, the comet trails to these jobs, that judgement on performance will come down the line. It’s not always easy to see the impact of something immediately or within 12 months or something.

“So we’re being very careful about the progress that we’re making but very deliberate about understanding that to continue on this journey of relevance, we’ve got to create something. We’ve got to do things differently. Otherwise, you’re effectively managing decline, such is the competitive landscape that we operate in.”

This article originally appeared in issue 96 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.

This week's SportsPro podcast will include an extended interview with Tom Harrison, covering the summer of cricket, the new Twenty20 league format, and the ECB's relationship with county cricket sides and the international game. Subscribe here, via iTunes or your favourite podcasts app to receive the episode when it is available later this week.