How many heroes like Ben Stokes did English cricket lose when the sport wasn’t on free-to-air TV, asks MP

An MP claimed that cricket may have lost out on potential stars of the caliber of World Cup hero Ben Stokes by not being on free-to-air television since 2005 as he clashed with the sport’s bosses.

Labour’s Ian Lucas challenged officials from the England and Wales Cricket Board as he told a Commons Select Committee that monthly participation rates fell from 403,000 to 279,000 from 2011 to 2016.

Members of the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee are examining how English cricket can capitalize on the men’s team’s World Cup success this year by growing the sport’s appeal and bringing it to a wider audience.

And flanked by the Men and Women’s Cricket World Cup trophies, both currently held by England, ECB chief executive officer Tom Harrison was quizzed over how the sport would avoid repeating what happened after England’s famous Ashes triumph of 2005.

Committee chairman Damian Collins said that rather than prompting a renaissance in the game, the following years actually saw a decline in attendance, something blamed by many on the switch from free-to-air to pay television.

Mr. Harrison said the game in 2005 was very different and investment was needed to bring stadia up to scratch, but that the decline was a “more complex issue”. He said that in 2005, 40 percent of people only had five channels on their TVs and there were no iPads.

He added that between 2020 and 2024 he expected the game to be 75 percent reliant on pay television such as Sky for revenues, allowing it to invest in the grassroots of the game.

Asked what the ECB would do differently, he said it had signed up to a voluntary code which meant 30 percent of revenues would go to grass root causes, and that the sport was going back onto the BBC with live cricket next year. He said the product would drive audiences for the betterment of all of cricket.

Mr. Lucas asked about the possibility of having just one Test match on free-to-air television, adding that the impact of the Rugby World Cup was increased by being on ITV.

But Mr. Harrison said an earlier review showed that having one Test match a year between 2014 and 2017 on free-to-air TV would cost the game £137.4m, 48 percent of the budget for domestic broadcast rights.

He said that missing out on the extra money from a pay-TV operator would impact on its strategic plan to grow cricket and was “extremely hard to justify”.

Mr. Lucas replied that the fall in participation rates between 2011 and 2016 was also “extremely hard to justify” and asked: “I wonder how many Ben Stokes we lost in that period.”

MPs were told about the growth in the women’s game in recent years, a trend helped by England’s win in the 2017 World Cup.

Yorkshire peer Lord Patel of Bradford, a Senior Independent Non-Executive Director at the ECB, said 2,000 South Asian women over four years were being helped to become mentors and cricket coaches.

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