A billion dollars is, if my math is correct, a lot of money. Even spread over seven years, as in the latest broadcast deal struck between Cricket Australia and the combined might of Seven and Foxtel, it's a hefty bag of cash to hand over for the privilege of televising ball games. And if anything, the amount CA got for the cricket rights were a little underwhelming compared to what might have been expected a year or so ago – the news that the Australian team gets its sporting goods from the hardware store can't have helped push the price up. Yet incredibly, this colossal sum was paid for a sport that the previous broadcaster, Nine, reportedly made a loss on. So why, in an era of shrinking ad revenues and squeezed budgets, are networks still falling over themselves to shove massive bankrolls down a professional sport's g-string?
One reason is simple: sport is one of the last remaining reasons for anyone to watch regularly scheduled programming. Streaming services are ravenously devouring market share, while even those network shows that do command loyalty can be viewed pretty much any time you like, diminishing their value for advertisers. Cricket might not be a big moneyspinner in itself, but it gets people turning the TV on and sitting down in front of it at the time the network wants them to – and hopefully sticking around after stumps are drawn.
But there's a bigger principle at play in the billion-buck outlay, too. Cricket is Australia. Today it's perhaps not quite as central to our existence as it once was, but the game is still embedded in our DNA, running through the veins of a country that had a national cricket team before it was technically a nation. For 40 years Channel Nine enjoyed the cachet of being the broadcaster of our national pastime, and its coverage and commentary team became a part of the fabric of the nation, as the ABC had done before it. Holding rights to the cricket means holding the rights to a slice of Australia's soul: the channel that does so has placed itself at the apex of a grand patriotic pyramid. It's a huge privilege – and a huge responsibility. If Seven and Foxtel stuff it up… our retribution will surely be great and terrible.