Trial by fire: Simon Green on BT Sport’s Ashes Test cricket debut

Australia and England’s men’s cricket teams will resume one of world sport’s oldest rivalries when their five-Test Ashes series begins in Brisbane on 23rd November. Back in the UK, pay-TV channel BT Sport will be showing the series for the first time. Simon Green, the head of BT Sport, explains how the channel aims to make its mark on the historic contest.

Trial by fire: Simon Green on BT Sport’s Ashes Test cricket debut

Ever since the England men’s cricket team toured Australia in 1990/91, fans of the Three Lions have been able to wake in the middle of the cold British nights and watch their side compete Down Under for the Ashes. 

Aside from the sight of England batsmen being peppered by a barrage of short-pitched bowling from the hosts’ fastest bowlers, the one constant had been UK channel Sky Sports relaying the live coverage back home.        

However, when England captain Joe Root and his Australian counterpart, Steve Smith, take to the field for the first toss of the series at the Gabba on 23rd November things will look a little different for British viewers.

In 2015, BT Sport significantly outbid Sky Sports to secure a five-year deal with Cricket Australia (CA) for the rights to all internationals played in the country, as well as 35 games a year from the KFC Big Bash League domestic T20 tournament and the Rebel Women’s Big Bash League. According to the UK's Daily Mail, BT Sport will pay CA around UK£16 million (US$25 million) a year over the course of the deal. The real prize, of course, was this year’s men’s and women’s Ashes.  

Australian fast bowler Mitchel Starc is expected to be the host’s main threat with the ball

Earlier this year Sky Sports, which had been the exclusive UK broadcast home of English cricket since 2006, beat BT Sport to remain the senior broadcast partner of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) from 2020 to 2024. That only serves to intensify the focus on the series ahead, which represents BT Sport’s best chance to make incursions into a key rival territory. 

Ahead of BT Sport’s inaugural Ashes series - the first England men’s tour not broadcast in the UK by Sky Sports since the 1990 tour of the West Indies - Simon Green, head of BT Sport, discusses how the broadcaster will ensure that it hits the heights with its production values, how it will work with CA and host broadcaster Channel 9, and how it will reach viewers through its innovative over-the-top (OTT) and social media platforms. 

The opening match of the series takes place on 23rd November and will follow BT Sport’s critically acclaimed coverage of soccer’s Uefa Champions League.    

SportsPro: This will be the first ever Ashes series on BT Sport and the first non-Sky away Test series broadcast in the UK in 27 years.  What will your production do differently and how will you make your coverage unique to BT Sport’s core values? 

Simon Green: We are not focusing on what we are going to do differently to anyone else. We just want to do as good a job as we can in the circumstances that we find ourselves. 

We are taking a feed from [Australian host broadcaster] Channel 9, which is very typical of any broadcaster in a foreign territory covering an event such as this.

We have a host broadcaster supplied to us but we are adding our own unilateral cameras so we will have at least four cameras to add on a typical day. Doing this will make the coverage feel as if it is absolutely our own.

Our commentary talent is combined to a point with [the BBC’s dedicated radio programme] Test Match Special team and the Channel 9 team. But we do have our own people there anyway. 

[The coverage] will be hosted by Matt Smith and Allison Mitchell. It will be put together in a manner that is very BT Sport, which is very difficult to describe exactly but if you watch BT Sport you will sense that there is a different way that we cover our sport. We feel that it is personable and full of personality - we encourage all of our punditry team to be as much themselves as they can be.  

I hope that our viewers feel that we bring a lot of warmth and depth into the coverage but it will be done onsite in a very professional way. It will be presented from pitchside, which I don’t think has been done before [in broadcasting cricket live], but we will always have somewhere to go should the weather not work out the way we want. 

The way that we are enhancing the coverage with our own four-camera unilateral facility means that we can very much make it feel as if it is a BT Sport production. We won’t have to go to breaks at the same time as Channel 9 and, likewise, we can start and conclude as and when we want. Therefore, it will feel like it is a UK production even though we have clearly got Australian talent involved.  

We don’t believe that our viewers want to hear from a unilateral English point of view. We feel that having Ricky Ponting, Damien Fleming and Adam Gilchrist on our team is an important aspect to our coverage.

We are not comparing ourselves to anyone else and will do as good an Ashes coverage that you will have seen for an overseas Test series.     

Simon Green has been head of BT Sport since 2012

As a UK broadcaster how much of an advantage is it to you that the second men’s Test match at the Adelaide Oval will be a day-night game? Likewise, how helpful was it that the women’s team’s only Test match was a day-night game? 

The Adelaide day-night match is the first one to be played in an Ashes series and clearly it has a different appeal. It has an added appeal, I think, to our audience because it shifts the time of day into a better time zone for us and it will make it far more interesting viewing in many regards.

A day-night Test is something that we have never seen in the long history of the Ashes so it does give a bit of history, too.

As far as having the women’s series as part of our coverage, it does enhance the overall feel about our engagement with Ashes cricket - particularly because of the recent success of the women’s team [who won the 2017 Women's Cricket World Cup] and how well they did this summer. 

There is a lot of interest in cricket, and not just the men’s team. Both teams are touring at a similar time and we feel that the women’s series will receive adequate coverage - we will treat it with its due respect. 

The only reason that we are not doing the women’s Test match in the same way as the rest of the women’s Ashes series [which is comprised of one Test match, three women's one-day internationals (WODIs) and three women's T20 internationals (WT20Is)] is that the Test match is going to be purely for digital consumption. 

It is [being shown on] a lower spec and is being done in a similar way to the men’s warm-up games, which we have been putting out live on Facebook. They have gone excellently from my point of view because of the engagement we are seeing so far. Although it’s too early to see the exact numbers but we are very happy with how it has gone.      

Your linear BT Sport channel will carry live and highlights coverage but how do you plan on adding OTT or second screen offerings to the picture? 

If you have experienced the Champions League app that we launched over two years ago, it will be similar to that.  It has proved really popular and did set the standards for sports app coverage and the second screen opportunity for covering an event alongside your first screen. 

The app technology that we used has been modified and will be used in all of the men’s and women’s cricket so that you can wake up in the morning and go back and see whatever you want and how you want to. We believe that this will be a terrific second screen addition for our customers. 

The other thing that we have already launched - which isn’t a second screen - is a digital and social brand that we originally launched around our boxing coverage called No Filter Boxing. This allowed us to try and be a bit more authentic when covering boxing in a non-linear capacity.

It is a brand that has worked very well for us so we have now launched No Filter Ashes. It is a way of getting us inside everything that is going on in and around the Ashes in Australia from our talent point of view and the imbedded digital team that we have put in amongst our production team.   

There are many ways that we can engage with fans using brands like No Filter Ashes and our social media brands, whether that is YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, to amplify the event. 

England captain Joe Root will lead his country for the first time in an Ashes series

You have shown the past two finals of soccer’s Uefa Champions League and Europa League live on social media for free. Do you have plans to offer anything similar for the Ashes Test matches? 

The warm-up games on Facebook will be our only free [live] offering and we are doing highlights - No Filter Highlights. But no, we are not going to do that for the live games in the Ashes series.        

How important is it to your production values to have a live pitchside studio in Australia? How closely have you been working with CA on your production?   

We have been working with CA since we did the deal two years ago and Channel 9 for over a year now. We have had good conversations with Sunset + Vine, who are our production partners on this. 

Our own team have been already been out to Australia to figure out the best way of doing this. What we have set up has been very much coordinated with CA. They have absolutely been part of what we are doing and are proving to be an extremely cooperative partner.

It is CA that has enabled us to get access to the women’s Test match, for example, which doesn’t have a host television broadcaster. Likewise, the men’s warm-up matches. 

They have been instrumental in helping us get that feed so that we can offer it in the way that we want to offer it.  

BT Sport's coverage will reach viewers through its innovative over-the-top (OTT) and social media platforms

Cricket is widely known to be second in Sky's list of priorities after Premier League soccer. How much of a blow did you see the deal with CA, particularly as it includes an Ashes series, in BT's ongoing battle with Sky in the UK sports rights marketplace?

We are an organisation that was launched four years ago into the world of sports rights and television coverage of sport. Clearly, it is a long-term aspiration for us to be in this world. We are here for that long journey and there are sets of rights that we will pick up along the way. We don’t, however, see any specific acquisition as a battle won or a battle lost against anyone else in the marketplace.          

What, in your opinion, would constitute a successful Ashes series for BT Sport?    

An absolutely successful Ashes series for BT Sport would be England winning it 3-2 on the last day of the fifth Test!

A lot does, of course, depend on what happens on the pitch but a successful series would be one that enhances what we provide for our customers. We hope that our customers see it as exactly that. We are a customer-serving business and key to that is making sure that the customers are ultimately happy with what they are being served.