As the first Nine-less summer of cricket draws to a close, I've been left scratching my head, trying to figure out what the future holds for the embattled One Day International (ODI) format.
For non-cricket fans, this is the game that consists of two sessions, by which each team bats and bowls for 50 overs.
Last year, Cricket Australia decided it was in need of a change - and more money. This led to the monumental shake-up of cricket broadcast rights with the national sport moving to two new networks in Seven and Foxtel.
Part of this $1.2 billion deal included the ODI format being slapped behind a paywall, becoming an exclusive part of Foxtel's programming. When I first read the news the weight of the decision didn't fully hit me.
Over the coming months, commentators and cricket greats were split down the middle, some hoping it would refresh the format, which admittedly had begun to slip in viewership. Others labelled it the death knell for the code.
I, for one, will be picking up my shovel and digging. Of course, I wouldn't be so bold to say this grave will be dug in a matter of months, it'll take a few years for Foxtel to completely kill ODIs.
I predict the impact of having almost a fourth the size of your audience on Foxtel will have a damaging and near-fatal impact on an already struggling code.
I'm not saying the code itself will no longer be played - ODIs are, of course, a worldwide contest - but I don't believe Australians will be able to snag a few overs of the game when they get home early from work in the summer months, as viewership may never reach its dazzling heights again, eventually slowing revenue and the overall broadcast of the game.
When broaching this argument earlier this year, Foxtel was quick to point out that it has far less viewer reach than its free-to-air counterparts.
However, Foxtel's rating performance compared to its available viewership is not up for debate here; it's the impact its exclusivity of ODI rights will have on the game for years to come.
Foxtel, on countless occasions, has touted the format as a ratings success, growing audience over the course of the summer. From what was a poor start against the South African's in December 2018 (see chart below), Foxtel improved on its rating performance both on pitch and on screen against a dominate Indian side.
The latest series between Australia and India reached over 1.7 million unique viewers across live play, pre and post-game supporting coverage, plus innings breaks. Not including its Kayo, Foxtel Now, Go or other platforms.
This is admittedly a strong effort when balanced out against the total available viewership Foxtel has, which AdNews understands is somewhere in the region of 2.5 million.
Yet if we were to take 2018's ODI series clash between Australia and England, the picture of an already damaged code comes into view.
Australia at that time was coming into the series off the back of a huge Ashes victory and going up against our rival nation in England, which would have also provided an extra boost to ratings.
Looking at its performance, the first game drew a five-city metro audience of 1.038m and 1.216m for the first two sessions on Nine, respectively. When taking the national figures into account, one game of ODI on free-to-air nearly topples an entire series on pay TV.
England’s crushing five-wicket win over Australia in the final game of the same series was the most-watched ODI in two years with a cumulative audience of 5.64 million viewers across both sessions.
This included a national average audience of 1.79 million in England’s run chase, including 1.22 million metro, and 1.52 million in Australia’s innings, with 1.04 million metro.
While the figures from Nine's coverage can't be compared to Foxtel's because of the subscriber base, the fact remains, this deal has cut viewership in half, even more.
Below is a chart comparing the first series played against South Africa as well as another documenting the figures from the last two home soil ODI matches played in January. These numbers paint a similar picture of how far ODI audience reach has been reduced.
The truth is, ODIs needs free-to-air. It provides the sport with reach that Foxtel simply can't. While you may be able to revamp the format with what I consider great commentators, excellent analysis and ad-free coverage, it's not going to save it.
ODIs have been a shot deer for sometime, slowly oozing out viewers from an open wound, struggling to stand on its feet and keep striding forward. So why line-up another shot?
Attendance for the major stadiums such as the Sydney and Melbourne Cricket Grounds haven't declined significantly, yet they have seen drop-offs of close to 5000-6000 over the past two years.
Others have seen even higher, with Cricket Australia opting to find new locations to keep audiences interested.
Foxtel will tell you it hopes cricket will grow subscribers, not just on its typical product, but also it's streaming platforms.
However, with just over two million active subscribers, even if cricket was able to double its subscriber base, that would still rely on over 25% of the audience watching ODI cricket for every minute of every game. With its current base, this sits at 50%.
On some occasions, Foxtel has gotten close to that 25% mark, but not every series is going to be against India or England. Long gone are the days of Michael Clarke and Sachin Tendulkar battling it out for centuries, with Australia now firmly in the “rebuild” stage as ex-captain Steve Smith and ex-vice captain David Warner look to return to the national side this year.
Growth, while possible, will never be able to pull the game back to where it once was on free-to-air. No one is denying that, but, what buyers should be aware of is how fewer eyeballs their brands now have as a result.
With a quarter of the reach, how long will brands like Bunnings and McDonald's deem ODIs a useful tool to talk to sports fans? Will they continue to pump dollars into a dying game?
When it's all said and done, as viewers decline, so too will the attendance, and in time, the money. When that happens, Cricket Australia is going to have to reach into their good old bag of tricks, and 'sand' back the game and start from scratch.