World Cup Viewership Numbers Belie ICC Claims
A heartening sign for ODIs’ success as a bridge format
The statistics emerging from the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 baffle few others besides the International Cricket Council.
The astronomical audience numbers confirm what has long been the war cry: that one-day internationals not only have a legitimate right to be a fixture in the cricket calendar and part of cricket’s living, breathing history, but also remain an integral conduit to connect audiences across the various formats of the sport.
The ICC recently released viewership numbers from World Cup 2019, and not surprisingly, the 50-over format found a record number of spectators tuning in to watch the premier tournament.
Amongst the many staggering figures released, was the fact that the six-week cricket tournament raked in a cumulative average live audience of 1.6 billion. This represents a 38% increase from World Cup 2015 held in Australia and New Zealand, which claimed a unique broadcast audience of 706 million viewers.
In times when cricket’s power corridors would have us believe that cricket is jostling with football in terms of viewership, these figures are heartening as sign of how, despite the governing body’s attempt to marginalise this format of the sport, it has thrived and allowed cricket to retain its world share of sports audiences.
Unsurprisingly again, the tournament’s biggest draw was the match between India and Pakistan, bringing in 273 million unique viewers. That it was a largely one-sided affair with India dominant is another matter altogether. There is historical significance to the fact, but it says next to nothing about cricket’s growing popularity in nations far and wide.
Manu Sawhney, the ICC chief executive who took over from Dave Richardson, had this to say: “These quite astounding numbers demonstrate the power of live cricket to connect and engage more deeply with diverse audiences around the world. The theatre and drama of live cricket is compelling, and the added jeopardy of tournament cricket enables our sport to cut through and aggregate audiences like never before, even in our increasingly fragmented world.”
What the ICC conveniently left out was what those numbers implied. Once again, the two words missing from the ICC’s vocabulary were inclusive and expansive.
The governing body neglected to mention that these figures come despite the fact that the ICC had essentially thrown all its eggs in the Twenty20 basket, hoping for an Olympics entry and sidelining the interests of Test cricket through exorbitant gate revenues, restrictive television and cable pricing, and absentee marketing.
In so doing the ICC has reduced itself to being a figurehead entity, watching the mushrooming of Twenty20 that is significantly changing the landscape of domestic cricket across the cricket playing nations, and creating blocks of windows of time when the game is going through an upheaval in waves around the world.
The ICC did not mention in its shock how, through “pressure” from the more affluent and influential cricket boards, it has been looking to consign ODIs and Test cricket alike to the endangered species category.
It has actively sought to diminish the worthiness of the 50-over format, even eliminating the ICC Champions Trophy although the last tournament was a stupendous success and well received. It is on record that that decision was made and retracted as many as three times.
The audience numbers may have also to do with the fact that, significantly, this edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup was available across a spectrum of broadcast partnerships, covering large parts of the globe in real time, and through news reels and highlights. Evidently there is a rather large, lascivious sub-contention-centric spectator community, with an insatiable appetite when it comes to consuming cricket.
The numbers hide a further, undeniable truth.
World Cup 2019 was not without its flaws. The timing of the tournament became a hugely contentious issue with the England and Wales Cricket Board attempting to reserve the relatively dry part of the English summer for the historic, traditional bilateral Test series known as the Ashes.
It brought into play the issue of how a lengthy tournament wouldn’t be able to avail of reserve days in the event of washouts – in the event, there were three – and the nature of pitches at the start of the English summer.
The toss too became a talking point, as did the fact that some teams felt they had been handed a raw deal in terms of the quality of pitches and venues.
Ground clearance for rainwater became a major bone of contention, the argument being that England had not evolved enough to ensure proper drainage facilities to encourage the possibility of games getting underway.
It became obvious in the following days that there was little coordination between the ICC and ECB on these matters of concern.
Although the tied final between England and New Zealand, and the almost litigious manner of awarding the World Cup to England despite the tied super over that followed, managed to overshadow the chronic problems, one fact remained in plain sight.
A telling and highly debated issue came to the fore: the absurd aberration of a shrinking World Cup and the resulting devaluation of the sport, due to the marginalisation of cricket’s one-hundred plus associate member nations, who have been handed a blank cheque for Twenty20 participation but were denied the opportunity to participate in the Cricket World Cup.
With participation significantly downsized from 16 teams to 14 and now just ten, the policy unmasked the ugly truth of a rather cozy club, which is not interested in expanding the game across regions by opening up the most watched tournament and the most coveted Cup.
The angst of teams looking for a global platform such as the World Cup for experience, sponsorship and support caused some such as former Scotland captain Preston Mommsen, who led Scotland in the 2015 edition, to hit out at the ICC, saying the shrunken contest was no World Cup but rather “a tournament of ten teams.”
The situation was only exacerbated when Scotland found themselves at the receiving end of a qualifier tournament that would pick only two teams to join the eight automatically selected for the World Cup.
The ICC’s controversial decision not to use its now universal Decision Review System in the important qualifier tournament held the preceding March, hit home hard for Scotland, and their captain Kyle Coetzer had strong words for the ICC for designing this aberration. In this he was joined by former Scotland captains Mommsen and Craig Wright.
Scotland lost out to the West Indies for the final spot, and one umpiring decision in particular, the lbw decision that went against Richie Berrington, rankled the Scotland captain.
Coetzer was emphatic: “Clearly that lbw decision is not sitting very well with us right now. It’s not the first one in this tournament. In a competition like this, it comes down to a big game like that.”
Mommsen and Wright were less polite and took their anger to social media, calling directly on the ICC to review its policy and actions.
Here is what Mommsen wrote: “@ICC I think you need to re-address your ‘values’ below, particularly your final point. Your actions as a governing body are so misaligned with this it’s frightening.”
The values alluded to the ICC’s reiteration of its commitment to globalising cricket.
Mommsen also made reference to the fact that the qualifier tournament was held in far away Bangladesh, when the main tournament was scheduled to be staged in England.
Scotland’s performances, or the lack thereof, have been cited to undermine the voice of the aspiring cricket nations. But by jettisoning opportunities, instead of hosting more tournaments and encouraging greater competition to create a level playing field with standards high, the ICC chose to shunt these associates aside. Instead it threw them the bone of more slots in future Twenty20 events.
Diminishing opportunities, and therefore growing financial concerns, marginalisation and the realisation that even a four-year cycle might not present most of these teams with an opportunity, is steadily hollowing out the greater ambitions of associate member teams to play Test cricket.
They have made no bones about how they see the ODI format, and not Twenty20, as their launchpad into playing Test cricket. ICC policy to the contrary has led to the defection of cricketers such as Eoin Morgan, or has dissuaded them from playing for associate member nations as a full-time career, knowing as they do that opportunities have become even more scarce.
Wright’s response was equally curt and direct: “It’s all been said before, but this tournament has highlighted (again) so much that is wrong with the management, structure and priorities of world cricket @ICC #notgoodenough.”
Stiffer competition, tighter matches, equally matched teams, a watertight tournament… the numbers have polarised opinion. Misrepresenting audience diversity and throwing a harsh light on reality, what the viewership (and sponsorship) numbers don’t reveal, is that for cricket as a global sport, a level playing field remains a utopian dream.