Cricket stamped with Murdoch footprint
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
The Hindu, 13 November
Last summer’s engrossing Ashes series was a testament to the joyful rigors of Test cricket, a long-awaited boost for the game in its native land – and a windfall for Rupert Murdoch.
Prior to the series, cable-satellite network Sky TV (in which Murdoch’s News Corp is the largest shareholder) had won exclusive live telecast rights for English cricket starting from 2006. So the Oval Test at which England prised the Ashes from Australia, broadcast to a huge audience on Channel Four, may well be the last ever to be televised free-to-air. Next year, cricket-lovers will have to pay to watch England play. Currently, there are just under 8 million Sky subscribers, about a third of UK households. The Ashes series was a powerful advertisement for Sky’s hot new property, and will undoubtedly persuade more people to fork out and join the Sky family. And Murdoch didn’t have to spend a penny on the promotion. Ironically, he’s the beneficiary of a marketing “ambush” – the kind of corporate parasitism that the ICC and the Global Cricket Corporation (owned by Murdoch) sought to ban at the 2003 World Cup.
I have to admit I find the existence of an entity called the Global Cricket Corporation somewhat sinister. The words say so little, yet claim so much. It’s non-descript, faceless – yet bristling with hubris. As a specimen of corporate self-aggrandisement, it’s preposterous, and yet worryingly apt.
GCC owns a single property: a five year contract for the global broadcasting and marketing rights for ICC events, notably the World Cups of 2003 and 2007.
GCC is a small slice of News Corporation, Murdoch’s media-entertainment conglomerate. In 2005, News Corp boasted total annual revenue of $24 billion, making it, according to Forbes magazine, the world’s 125th largest corporation – and third largest in the media sector, after Time Warner and Disney. In addition to Sky, Murdoch controls Hollywood giant 20th Century Fox, Fox TV (now dominating the US’s coveted 18 to 49 demographic), The New York Post, TV Guide (the US’s best selling weekly magazine),The Times of London, the Sun (Britain’s best-selling daily), Harper Collins, the biggest English language book publisher, among scores of other media holdings across North America, Europe, Australia and Asia, including Star TV and Star-ESPN (shared with Disney).
Murdoch’s cultural portfolio is amazingly diverse. Along with cricket there’s American Idol, The Simpsons, Kaun Banega Crorepati, the films of Jackie Chan and the novels of Michael Crichton. But sport, including cricket, plays a special role in the News Corp empire, serving, in Murdoch’s words, as a “battering ram” to enter new markets. He owns the broadcast rights for Major League Baseball and the World Series, American football and the Superbowl, and NASCAR – the stock-car racing cult that enjoys huge popularity in the USA (and for which Murdoch paid $2.8 billion over six years, compared to the $550 million the ICC received for five years). In Australia, he owns the sport of rugby league outright. For thirteen years he has enjoyed exclusive rights to English Premier League football, the biggest prize in European sports broadcasting. This outstanding monopoly attraction played a key role in building the Sky subscriber base – and is now being challenged by the European Union.
Cricket contributes to the corporate “synergy” through which Murdoch’s various assets enhance each other. Sky’s cricket deal will not only brings in more Sky subscribers, but increase ratings and therefore advertising revenues for other Sky programmes, which are also heavily promoted by Murdoch’s newspapers. Meanwhile, Sky has joined Vodafone to launch a new mobile television service featuring live coverage of England’s series against Pakistan. Star-ESPN is working on a similar collaboration with Tata. Even the Harper Collins Willow imprint gets in on the act, publishing autobiographies by big-name English and Australian cricketers.
The most profitable “synergy” has been in India, where cricket gave Murdoch invaluable access to India’s expanding consumer classes. “STAR has blossomed into one of News Corp’s most exciting growth drivers,” he told shareholders earlier this year. Of course, Murdoch is by no means the only one to see cricket as a strategic lynch-pin in the Indian cable market, which is why the multi-sided wrangle involving Star-ESPN, Sony, Zee and the BCCI has been so prolonged and intense.
Murdoch routinely denounces the evils of monopoly and proclaims consumer choice as his ideology, but his aim is actually to corner markets and make consumers dependent on his services. The GCC’s insistence on enforcing the “ambush clause” is an attempt to protect the exclusivity of Murdoch’s right to exploit the public platform provided by the World Cup. The protracted dispute over payments from the 2003 event was a warning to the ICC and its member boards, a sign of Murdoch’s determination to maximise the value of his investment. The rules of the contract (and of the WTO) will be ruthlessly applied. Other concerns, whether ethical (the question of playing in Zimbabwe) or equitable (the rights of players to exploit the market they help create), are to count for nothing.
Murdoch is now a looming presence in global cricket. Through the GCC he controls the game’s biggest global event; through Sky he monopolises access to its second largest consumer market; through Star-ESPN he helps shape its future in south Asia. What does this mean for cricket? The portents are worrying. The social impact of Fox News in the USA and The Sun in Britain has been negative in every respect: they’ve shredded journalistic standards, thrived on sensationalism and promoted bigotry. A less weighty and more parochial complaint is that Sky’s cricket coverage is lacklustre in comparison to Channel Four’s. More important is that the Sky deal forecloses public access to cricket in Britain, making it dependent on the ability to pay. A sad aftermath to England’s Ashes triumph – and a warning to cricket fans everywhere that the market forces represented by Murdoch may act as a deterrent to the game’s democratic development.