Cricket NSW’s high wire act of defiance?

Are we about to witness a rare act of disobedience against the wishes of Kerry Packer? In the next fortnight or so Cricket NSW will reveal if international cricket will move from the Sydney Cricket Ground to Telstra Stadium from the 2005-2006 season.

The decision could see all international games moving, or just the One Day Internationals (ODIs), with the tests staying at the SCG for historical reasons.

There have been a slowly emerging battle well documented in last Sunday’s Sydney Sunday Telegraph and in the Sydney Morning Herald. Packer doesn’t want the game to change venues in Sydney simply because it will mean he will have no real hope of televising Sydney-based games live into the Sydney area.

It’s all about stadium size. The SCG has room for 44,000 people, Telstra Stadium has room for 82,000. It’s harder to fill 82,000 for a five day test and for three or four one day international cricket games where the total audience would be well over 600,000 people over a summer. That’s based on a test going four days and four one day games, including one final.

At the SCG the audience would be around half that. For the one day games, filling the SCG would be no problem. For tests it would depend on the opposition, but in the past three years, more and more Sydney tests have seen full house signs on the first and second days (and third and fourth last summer because it was Steve Waugh’s last test).

At Telstra Stadium, that would be an impossibility, or very well near to it. But Telstra argues a good case. And why is the location of the cricket internationals important? It’s all about location and the city of origin and summer.

The Nine Network is able to charge more for broadcasting live across an entire day, including the more watched evening sessions of One Day games than it is for only the first two hours of a one day international. This applies especially to Sydney, the largest and richest of the media markets in this country.

Without the ability or the chance to advertise live into Sydney in the evening, even in summer, Nine would receive less for its sponsorships. Audience numbers in Sydney and across the country would be lower, revenue in January in particular, which is the lowest revenue producing month of the year, would be lower, meaning more pressure on costs and margins for the network.

In fact international cricket is the biggest source of revenue for Nine in January, such is its dominance of the schedule, with the Sydney test at the New Year and then the one day games over the rest of the month.

To make money out of sport, you have to go as live as possible into Sydney for as long as possible. Even in summer ad rates are highest in this market and the cost of advertising on Nine’s cricket coverage can vary from next to nothing for a Saturday ING Cup game, to almost prime time peak rating costs in the finals of the One Day Internationals, especially if Australia is playing.

Sydney does also face a growing challenge from Brisbane where the Gabba now can hold around 40,000 people (or a touch over). It is a modern ground and wants a one day international final. That would suit Kerry Packer and Nine because it would mean the game could be seen live in Sydney and the network can charge more for advertising spots.

Likewise Melbourne from the 2006-2007 season, with the Melbourne Cricket Ground rebuilt for the 2006 Commonwealth Games and looking to generate more income. An attempt to play an extra final there in January 2007(or even revamp the series to allow more games outside of Sydney, if the games move to Telstra Stadium) would be an option to be explored by nine.

If Kerry Packer’s will is defied, expect a torrent of abuse and criticism of the decision from certain people and commentators. The question should then be asked, if the games move to Telstra, especially the one day matches, will we see another World Series style revolution or assault from Packer?

The master contract Nine has with Cricket Australia expires in 2006. The Seven Network, with Telstra Stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands, would be a contender. If it could link with Telstra Stadium in Sydney, Cricket Australia could see a genuine bidding war for the TV rights, rather than having to deal with the dominant Nine Network and the Packer camp.

And that could be the real reason why Cricket NOW’s move to open a tender process for the international rights in Sydney, is being allowed to proceed towards conclusion without Cricket Australia stepping in to protect its arrangement with the Nine Network.

You can bet your boots Packer and Nine have been on the phone explaining life as they see it. But there seems to be another game being played here that will take another two years to conclude. Again this is not what Nine and Kerry Packer wants.

The AFL TV contract expires at the end of 2006, as does the Cricket Australia deal. In 2007, Nine’s deal with the National Rugby League expires. It is very possible one of these could be lost to Nine, either voluntarily or through Seven bidding or the anti-siphoning rules changing as part of the review of digital television still underway.

Renewing all three deals will cost Nine a lot more money, especially hype about the cost of sporting rights falling in value. That’s coming from the News Ltd media with its deal covering Rugby Union now up for re-negotiation.

A move to lower Nine’s revenue stream by shifting one day international cricket to Telstra Stadium will not be appreciated by the Packers or Nine for various reasons. Revenue and profits being of course the most important.

But if the games stay at the SCG, then you know that all is well between Cricket Australia and Packerdom. And that Packer’s will rules in Sydney, OK!