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The Rule of Free: The common ground shared by cricket and CounterStrike

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

Many things have changed in the way we consume sports media in recent times but our love of not paying is something that remains the same.

Will England cricket returning to free-to-air be a boost for sports sponsorship
Cricket in England has lost prominence since being behind a paywall. Credit: Craig Cameron via Creative Commons

I was lucky enough to attend the excellent Sheridan’s Sports Industry Masterclass last week and while there were many interesting take-outs, there was one that has stuck with me. The F Word. Free.

High profile speakers from across both traditional sports and eSports faced similar conundrums. How do we best monetise what we have? It’s no secret that traditional rights holders have looked to eSports for inspiration and want to be a part of its success (see ePremier League.) But, as Kieran Holmes-Darby (Excel Esports MD) pointed out, the popularity of eSports is in no small part down to the fact that it’s free. The challenge facing the e-side of the industry, is ‘can you successfully switch to a paid model?’

Twitch and YouTube provide massive platforms for eSports content and as a result are large beneficiaries of the popularity. So while, live paid events such as ESL One in Birmingham have proved highly popular, there is a danger that putting streamed content behind a paywall could damage the long-term popularity.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s a dilemma that has been prominent in traditional sport for decades and still remains. With private equity giants CVC making more in-roads into rugby, rumours of Six Nations leaving free to air television are rife. CVC have previous for this sort of thing, having moved the bulk of F1 coverage to subscription TV during their time as owners of the competition. The sport finds itself in a difficult spot, faced with an ageing fanbase (although it is clearly looking to address this) and stiff competition in the form of Formula E (which has done lots to appeal to younger fans.)

Can sports sponsorship learn from eSports?
Do eSports face the same challenges as traditional sports marketing?

F1 is certainly not an isolated case. Cricket is arguably the most famous example. Once, the second sport in UK, cricket’s best rights went behind a paywall after an era-defining Ashes series in 2005. What made that series so special was it’s accessibility. Yes, the cricket was sensational but everyone could dip into it. Two sides with amazing talent, fantastic players, nail biting conclusions and big characters that captured the public’s imagination. The series captured the imagination because the great on-field action was all readily available on a major terrestrial channel.

It’s clear why the decision was made to take Sky’s money in order to greater monetise the game but the participation figures have made for depressing reading dropping nearly 30% (428,000 adults playing once a week in 2009 to 308,000 in 2017*)

From 2020, BBC will broadcast two live fixtures for both men’s and women’s cricket, as well as securing the highlights for Test, ODI and T20. Crucially, these highlights extend to digital platforms too. Likewise, BBC recently extended its FA Cup rights, and having a platform like iPlayer at its disposal means there is an opportunity to keep the competition in the public consciousness. As well as creating bespoke content, designed to attract a younger audience to FA Cup.

The world has changed an awful lot since 2005, and the consumption of social and digital media is one overwhelming factor. It’s very easy to argue that TV no longer holds the same sway that it once did, due to younger audiences consuming more streaming content than linear. But the fact remains, that if the product is good and you’re able to access it free (on TV or mobile device) then there is an audience there to be built.

I’m not so naive as to think that all sport should be free. But having enough in the shop window to attract a robust, health and growing fan base is key. Core fans will pay for content, provided the experience is great (see NBA League Pass) but growing a market has always needed to attract casual fans and this hasn’t changed.

It’s not about the platform but the accessibility.

*Source: Sport England

1 comment


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