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A LABOUR government would consider adding at least one England match a year to the “crown jewels” list of live sport that must be made available on free-to-air television.
The pledge was made by Labour’s shadow culture secretary and deputy leader Tom Watson a day after 8.3 million viewers watched the closing stages of England’s World Cup triumph at Lord’s on Sunday evening.
That audience was spread across Channel 4 and Sky Sports after the latter agreed to share its exclusive live rights with the terrestrial channel — a deal which put the England men's cricket team back on free-to-air television for the first time since the famous Ashes series of 2005.
Channel 4 had the live rights for that series but the England and Wales Cricket Board had already lobbied the government to downgrade the status of home Test matches on the protected list of sports events so it could sell the live rights to the pay-TV broadcaster.
From 2006 until Sunday’s dramatic finale, only highlights of England’s matches have been shown by free-to-air broadcasters — a period that has seen huge sums of money flow into the sport from Sky, which the ECB has spent on its national sides and grassroots projects but at the expense of cricket’s profile.
As a result, many fans and pundits have called for a rethink on the cash-versus-eyeballs equation, with some suggesting at least one Test or limited-overs match per summer should be televised by a free-to-air broadcaster — a call that will only grow with the Ashes about to start again.
Watson said: “England winning the Cricket World Cup final was an astonishing achievement that had millions of people at the edge of their seats. It was brilliant to see great cricket come out from behind the paywall and for the final to be shown on free-to-air TV.
“We want as many people as possible to be able to share in the best of our sporting moments. That’s why Labour would review the list of crown jewel sporting events that are broadcast free-to-air.”
And these views are shared across the political spectrum.
Former sports minister Tracey Crouch, the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, told PA: “Broadcast deals are a matter for sport, not politicians, and to be fair to the ECB its new deal does contain a mix of pay and terrestrial TV matches.
“But I really think that given the viewing figures for both the women’s football World Cup and men’s Cricket World Cup final, sport needs to reflect on whether broadcast deals should be about the money or the impact of more people watching.”
Crouch’s point about the ECB’s “new deal” is a reference to next summer’s launch of The Hundred tournament, a concept that will see eight city-based franchises play a novel 100-ball format, with some of the games broadcast simultaneously by Sky and the BBC.
But whether that will be enough to create a positive legacy from this summer’s cricketing highs will be debated by the digital, culture, media and sport select committee this autumn.
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