2 Dec 2020

Bidwell: Why aren't our national sports on free-to-air TV?

6:02 pm on 2 December 2020

Opinion - I miss the cricket already.

Lockie Ferguson appeals the for a LBW of Nicholas Pooran. New Zealand Black Caps v West Indies.

Lockie Ferguson appeals the for a LBW of Nicholas Pooran during the recent T20 series. Photo: Photosport

The start of the test summer - both here and in Australia - has been among the most anticipated moments of every year for as long as I can remember.

The Aussies have started with white-ball cricket this season, thanks to lobbying from India, while our own Black Caps are obscured behind a different paywall.

I could go through the various reasons why I haven't subscribed to Spark and won't be watching New Zealand play cricket this summer. In the end, though, it all boils down to money.

I can afford Sky or Spark, but not both. And Sky gives me way, way more bang for my buck.

Your tastes might be different. Formula One motor racing and English Premier League football might have diverted you to Spark long ago and the cricket might just be an added bonus.

Increasingly, though, Sky and Spark are both beyond what people can afford and you wonder if it's time to recommence the debate about free-to-air sport.

The list of events in Australia, for instance, that are subject to anti-syphoning is vast.

From the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, to test cricket, the Melbourne Cup, State of Origin and club rugby league, FIFA World Cup group and qualifying matches, the Australian Open tennis, netball, rugby and various motorsport events, legislation exists to ensure every Aussie can cheer on their heroes.

Fox is an increasingly big player in the Australian television market and sports such as football, rugby league and cricket each have multiple broadcast partners. As is the case in England where the BBC, ITV, Sky and BT all have a slice of the football pie, for instance.

Like Australia, though, Britain continues to have sports and events that are solely shown on free-to-air.

There's no doubt sports fans in New Zealand are better served than ever before. On any given day or night you can watch myriad live events from a variety of countries and I for one am grateful for that.

But, gee, I miss the cricket.

All those long summer afternoons in the company of Glenn Turner and John Morrison and Billy Ibadulla on TVNZ. We only had two channels back then and here was one, for weeks at a time, dedicating itself to televising test and one-day cricket.

Wet day, no friends, didn't matter. Somewhere in New Zealand the sun was shining and Richard Hadlee was getting batsmen to nick balls through to Ian Smith.

My son loves cricket. He's been full of questions about why Rohit Sharma isn't in Australia with the rest of the India team, but happy that at least Virat Kohli's around.

He hasn't asked about Kane Williamson or Ross Taylor, and the start of New Zealand's test series against the West Indies, because he doesn't know it's on. Out of sight, out of mind.

That's what made me think how absurd it is that kids can't watch the Blackcaps or All Blacks, the way we did.

Thankfully it was all downhill, but I literally ran from Brooklyn School to the Basin Reserve to watch the West Indies play in 1987. From memory (and mine's not always reliable these days) they let you in for free after the tea break.

That's how accessible cricket was back then. Not only was it free to watch on television, but after a certain time of day they simply threw the gates open as well.

I haven't introduced my son to the joys of cricket on the radio, partly because he's not quite the tragic I am. And it's screens that captivate kids anyway.

He'll never know what it's like to cross to Iain Gallaway in Alexandra, where there's never a cloud in the sky and the stone fruit's always in season.

Sadly, nor will either of us be watching any New Zealand test cricket on television.

People, many of them well-intentioned, wonder how we can make children more active. How can we get them off devices and onto backyards and driveways with a bat or a ball or a racquet in their hand?

In my experience, it's televised sport.

Nothing enthused me and my mates - or my son and his - quite like watching the best athletes in action. Sport on TV holds my kid's attention for about 10 minutes and then he wants to be outside doing it himself.

Maybe the genie is permanently out of the bottle here. Maybe we can't enact legislation of the sort that sees high-calibre sport still broadcast free-to-air in places like Australia.

As recently as 2018, New Zealand First put forward a free-to-air members bill to get more sport out from behind paywalls, without success.

We all get that television broadcast deals keep sports afloat and help pay for their high-performance programmes. That's fine.

But what becomes of your code when the next generation can no longer watch it and then can't be bothered playing?

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