Broadcasting rights and a ball tampering scandal: How cricket.com.au fared through a tumultuous year

Mumbrella's Zoe Samios speaks to Cricket Australia’s head of digital Finn Bradshaw about the brand's tumultuous year, and how he plans to come out the other side stronger.

Four-and-a-half years as Cricket Australia’s head of digital could not have prepared Finn Bradshaw for the 2018/2019 cricket season.

Between a complex battle over television broadcasting and digital rights, the expansion of the Big Bash League competition, a ball tampering scandal resulting in an almost new cricket team, and staff turnover from the inside; Bradshaw and his team were forced to balance the usual unknowns with new unknowns. And with the absence of The Ashes, audiences were naturally not going to be as large as the 2017/18 season.

It was a tough year for Cricket Australia, which presented new challenges for cricket.com.au

Through that change, Bradshaw pinned his hopes on one thing: faith that people’s passion for cricket would shine through.

“I’m really pleased to say now that when we look back, the narrative that I see through our digital platform is that people still really love cricket,” he says.

According to Cricket Australia’s metrics, results have been, in Bradshaw’s words, “strong”.

In December, Cricket Network dipped by 400,000 viewers. According Nielsen’s digital panel ratings from December, Cricket Network had a unique audience of 2.5m, down from the previous year’s 2.9m. Similarly, ESPN Digital Network’s audience fell from 2.15m to 1.860m the year prior and Fox Sports fell from 1.69m to 1.36m.

The only sports category website to grow was Telstra Media AFL, up from 2017’s 1.70m to 2.033m for December.

In January, the Cricket Network’s audience was up 1% compared to January 2018, from 2.833m to 2.869m. Other networks also saw growth, with Fox Sports climbed 21% from 1.512m to 1.908m and ESPN up from 1.884m to 2.165m. AFL was up from 1.868m to 2.177m.

Cricket Australia’s application and social media results are up year on year. Thanks to a partnership with Google, Cricket Australia’s YouTube channel is the first Australian brand to pass 1m subscribers, and has more than 3.1m subscribers and 1.6b minutes viewed from November and January. The launch of a player-led brand platform, Direct Hit, has achieved 5.7m views since November.

This year the team also recruited a social media manager for the BBL, whose aim was to “take the shackles off” the BBL coverage. “One of the things the BBL tries to be for Cricket Australia is a gateway for new fans to cricket and we felt like the spirit of BBL is meant to be much more fun and a place you can be more playful than you can around national team playing Test matches,” he says.

Bradshaw hoped people would still love cricket, despite the year just gone

“As a result, the BBL’s Instagram has grown by 140%. We we’re really conscious that a lot of the women’s players are not household names yet and we wanted to really build out who they are and make it more accessible coverage,” he adds. “We had a dedicated team working on both the national women’s team and the WBBL focusing as much on the players and who they are as people, as on their results.

“We’ve seen strong growth on those channels but we really see that as a long term play with women’s sports going through a really exciting phase in Australia.”

Overall, the result is a good for Bradshaw, in the context of all the challenges of the last year.

“We did step back and look at the way we covered cricket and we wanted to make sure we really focused on the areas that people love the most,” he reflects.

“What we weren’t seeing was people were fleeing cricket for other sports entertainment options and we had some of our biggest days that we’ve ever had.

“The day on day engagement of our app through the Indian Test series was within about five percent of our day on day engagement through the Ashes the year before, and this year Fox Sports have rights as well. That five percent is easily understandable in that people have more choice now,” he adds.

The changing relationship between cricket.com.au and Foxtel’s Fox Sports has been a notable change for Cricket Australia’s digital team. The relationship transformed Fox Sports from being a competitor to a partner, after Foxtel obtained the digital video rights to the cricket. Bradshaw had seen how well Fox Sports has worked as a business in years gone by. He hoped the transition of digital video rights would result in the “elite broadcaster” growing the sport and having more people engage in cricket.

“We really looked over our shoulder at them a lot, so it was nice to have them as partners rather than competitors,” he says.

Unlike previous years when cricket.com.au sold its own subscription – $30 a year – direct to consumer, those wanting to watch live games on the Cricket Australia app needed a subscription to Fox Sports’ streaming service, Kayo, which they could obtain through the app for $25 a month. Kayo officially launched at the end of November, ahead of a busy December of cricket. As a result, Bradshaw and his team worked closely with Fox Sports to help boost subscriptions.

“For our fans it was an increase, but that $25 a month gets you all other sports, like cricket. The difference is it not a cricket only offer as previously, but the experience is much better,” he says.

As of early February, News Corp announced the streaming platform had signed up 100,000 paying subscribers. Bradshaw suspected the move from $30 a year to $25 a month might upset some of Cricket Australia’s fans, but he is surprised by how little noise that specific change had caused.

“Not to say that it’s not been perfect but we’ve tried to work really hard with people to hold their hand through that as much as possible,” he says.

“But all sports have been through this. Once you decide to partner with pay TV there’s a bit of friction early on, but it becomes part of the norm and compared to the rest of the world.

Bradshaw says throughout broadcasting rights discussions, it remained important Cricket Australia maintained video rights in some capacity, as it wanted to continue to build engagement with the sport.

“It’s not say a broadcaster can’t do that, but Fox is dealing with lots of different sports and we really believe in sort of our focus on cricket – deliver the great experience to fans – and that at the end of the day that’s only going to benefit both the fans and the broadcaster if we keep growing passion for the game through having access to video rights. The position we landed with Fox where they got all those rights too so they can build out their business there but also how can we really tangibly help.”

Kayo is promoted through the cricket.com.au website

The relationship with Fox Sports was not the only new project on Bradshaw’s mind this season. His team also turned its attention to Direct Hit, a video-based platform which operates in a similar way to Players Voice and former sports content platform, 20Four, but only features video content.

Direct Hit launched in late November and only has three sports players on its platform: Meg Lanning, Glenn Maxwell and Pat Cummins. It has worked well for the digital team, as they are able to use the video rights they have to build out each players’ stories, unlike competitors in the space. The website is based on a revenue-share model with the players, but Bradshaw and his team have been wary of making the platform commercially viable rather than filled with a number of cricket stars as soon as possible.

Direct Hit launched in November last year

“We also have cameras with the team as they travel all over the world so we can create a high quality video content wherever the players are, which is probably not what you saw on things like 20Four, where there is a lot of sort of players shot-style content,” he says.

“The reason why all these brands have exploded is that the audience is really responding well to that hyper personal style of content, and we felt if we put that kind of content out on our news channels it could be a bit jarring.

“We wanted to separate it out there so we went to certain players and their managers said ‘how about we create this product?’ The players are partners in a sense in those platforms. For our brands it means that in the past where they would have to talk to several parties to be able to sponsor that kind of content, this way you could go to us and we could say we’ve really got the rights to the player who will look after all of that commercialisation of it.”

The ultimate priority with the platform was putting the players in control of content, without doing the production themselves. “We didn’t want it to be a transactional relationship,” he adds.

As the summer of cricket comes to an end and Bradshaw’s team prepares for the new year, the biggest challenge will continue to be building out extra content.

“We have the same team covering the expanded season which is the extra BBL games and we really try and cover sort of the full breadth of cricket.

“It’s just been making sure how do we staff it to ensure that quality is there while also giving ourselves some room to try things like the new BBL social strategy with the same resources as before.”


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