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THE chairman of Channel 4, Luke Johnson, has sharply criticised the England and Wales Cricket Board for the way they handled the negotiations which will see live cricket disappear from terrestrial television to Sky from next summer, though highlights will be shown on Channel 5. And The Daily Telegraph can reveal the full picture of how Sky’s superior buying power secured the deal.

Johnson, the non-executive chairman of C4, told The Daily Telegraph: “Others in Channel 4 may be more circumspect. Our view is that the ECB did a very bad deal for the sport. They didn’t handle the negotiations well. They were short-term. They went for the money.

“We tried to bring it to the attention of the relevant people at the ECB. But what happened is that there are certain factions in the ECB and they took charge of the negotiations and they are very commercially minded.”

Giles Clarke, the chairman of Somerset who is also chairman of the ECB’s marketing committee, did the deal. He said that C4 were given every chance to bid. He added: “They were repeatedly asked, ‘Is this your final offer’ — and they said it was. If we had not done the deal with Sky then, at the end of this summer with England having won the Ashes, we would have to tell Duncan Fletcher [the England coach] we are cutting your budget — 25 per cent of our broadcast income goes to support the England team. What would the media have said then?”

The Daily Telegraph understands that, at one stage during the negotiations, Johnson spoke to Clarke on the phone and was asked how much money C4 would have to pay to retain live coverage of the home Test matches. When he was told the figure, Johnson said: “I’m glad it’s that high. If there was just a couple of million in it, that would be difficult. When you’ve got to that level we can’t match this figure.”

TV rights up to 1995: BBC (home Tests, Natwest Trophy and one-day internationals) plus Sky (Benson & Hedges Trophy, Sunday League and Test highlights) — Worth: £5m a year.

1995-98: BBC plus Sky — £15m a year.

1999-2002: Channel 4 (six Tests, NatWest) plus Sky (one Test and all other cricket) — £25m a year.

2003-05: Channel 4 plus Sky (with more one-day internationals for Sky) — £45m a year.

2006-09: All live cricket on Sky — £52m a year.

Johnson said: “We’re not hiding. Sky have a billion-pound cashflow and are vastly bigger. We were simply not in a position to match their offer. The ECB went for the money and they will find they have made a terrible mistake, with cricket disappearing from terrestrial television the level of interest in the sport will decline sharply. Cricket is not like football, it needs visibility. How will they get 20,000 people outside a Test ground?”

The ECB have never released the details of the negotiations, but they worked out that a joint C4/Sky deal, like the present one, would mean a loss of £14 million a year. Such a deal would have earned the ECB £28 million a year, but Sky were willing to pay £52 million a year for all cricket — home Tests, one-day internationals and all county cricket.

There were several bidders in the early rounds, and at one stage ITV were keen on showing the Twenty20 Cup. But Brian Barwick, who was then head of ITV Sport, left to become chief executive of the Football Association and ITV’s interest cooled. With the BBC not bidding, the final rounds were between C4 and Sky.

Channel 4 told the ECB they had been losing money on cricket ever since they started broadcasting the game in 1999. At present they pay £20 million a year for six Tests. Add production costs and this means £25 million a year to show cricket, with the channel not getting anything like that back in advertising revenue.

For the new four-year deal, which will run from 2006-09, C4 wanted less cricket. They only wanted to broadcast the summer’s major Test series of either four or five Tests, for which they were prepared to pay £11.25 million a year. They also wanted the highlights package but did not offer any money for it. This meant that C4, currently paying £3.25 million a Test, were offering £2.3 million a Test.

Sky, too, offered less money — but this was part of a negotiating ploy to make sure they got all the cricket. Sky offered £18 million a year if they had to share with C4. Sky at present pay £25 million a year for one home Test, one-day internationals and county cricket. But Sky also made a bid for the entire summer’s cricket, the only broadcaster to do so, and offered £52 million a year. The message was clear: give us all cricket and earn more money, make us share with Channel 4 and see your income drop.

Clarke said: “If Channel 4 had offered the money they pay now that would have made it a very interesting situation. The ECB would have had a complex decision. But in the end it was not a difficult decision. We had no choice.

“The question is, why did Channel 4 not bid for most of the rights? And why did the national broadcaster, the BBC, not make a bid? We have a water-tight agree-ment with the best friend of cricket and there’s no question of going back.”

© Mihir Bose

      

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