The Australian and English cricket teams weren’t the only ones battling last-minute nerves before the first Ashes Test last Thursday. Negotiations between Cricket Australia and the ABC over broadcast rights ran down to the wire, with contracts inked just hours before Aunty was due to broadcast the toss.

The main sticking point was Cricket Australia’s insistence on hosting the online streaming of the commentary, which meant the ABC wasn’t able to offer a direct link to its own broadcast on its website or via a smartphone radio app. “Fans took to social media to protest” against the move, accusing Cricket Australia of capitalising on something that was once free.

But who really owns the rights to online and streaming content? Cricket Australia is just one of many sports rights holders beginning to distribute and monetise this space.

In April 2011, Telstra paid $153 million for exclusive AFL online rights for five years, and it paid $100 million  in 2012 to secure the mobile broadcasting rights for National Rugby League — also for five years. This was separate from the deals the leagues had done with TV networks.

Similarly, in a move to secure its digital territory, Cricket Australia teamed up with Channel Nine (which has secured the TV rights to broadcast the Test and the one-day international series) to develop a live-match screening subscription service.  The Watch Live app is free to download and offers live streams of all games in the Ashes, one-day international, Twenty20 international and Big Bash League series, as well as selected Southern Stars matches. Punters are charged $19.99 a year ($15.99 for members of the Australian Cricket Family) or $4.99 a day to access the live streaming services.

But the cricket isn’t the same as a footy match. Test cricket matches are played over days, some of them during business hours. The furore that erupted last Thursday on social media was largely the reaction of fans who wanted to listen to the match while at work and couldn’t  do so without paying for access through the app — although they would have been able to listen to the ABC’s radio broadcast for free.

Brett Hutchins, co-director of the Research Unit in Media Studies at Monash University, told Crikey Cricket Australia was reacting to an online environment where it was extremely difficult to protect content.

“This is all about precedent and trying to establish new norms about how these things are experienced in a digital world, and turning on the radio isn’t as simple as it once was,” he said.

“While sports organisations may understand and indeed insist there is a difference, for a lot of cricket fans it’s just audio. It’s the difference between a yearly sporting and cultural ritual and a commercial rights environment and the two are in conflict at the moment.”

Cricket Australia did end up pointing fans to a link that allowed people to listen to ABC Grandstand‘s broadcast of the match soon after complaints began. But issues can arise when a live stream of the ABC’s content is made available through a commercial channel, for example, which might be a risk to the integrity of the national broadcaster’s charter.

“That’s the problem with the online world — the line between the public service media and commercial media gets pretty blurred,” said Hutchins.

ABC manager for metropolitan local radio Jeremy Millar told Crikey it was paramount that the ABC ensured its editorial charter wasn’t breached by Cricket Australia broadcast.

“The terms of the contract and its negotiations are confidential, but it’s fair to say that was a detailed part of the discussion,” he said.

Millar says although the ABC is disappointed it can no longer broadcast its cricket commentary online, he is pleased the ABC’s 80-plus-year relationship with cricket will be extended by another five.

“We’re disappointed in that we believe the online component is critical now and into the future, but we’re also pleased the fans will be able to hear us through the Cricket Australia online app,” he said.

Cricket Australia was contacted for this story, but did not respond.