Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

The Shame Game: Cricket and the media - a romance that went sour

Tighter budgets, constraints of space, the mounting fiscal demands of rights holders and a poorly performing team all mean the game no longer attracts the kind of news coverage that was once taken for granted.

Cricket still attracts big sponsorship dollars, but will that continue with a failing Black Caps' team? Photo / Brett Phibbs
Cricket still attracts big sponsorship dollars, but will that continue with a failing Black Caps' team? Photo / Brett Phibbs

If New Zealand win a test but there's no one around to see it, is it a win at all?

That twist on an old philosophical question rang true in Colombo last week, when New Zealand powered to a rare test victory in front of zero media - either print, digital or broadcast - from their own country.

This is a far cry from the days when the Herald used to send a reporter around the country to cover Auckland and another to follow Northern Districts during the summer months.

Tighter budgets, less space, the increasing fiscal demands of rights holders and a poorly performing team have tested the media's love affair with cricket.

For some, like veteran broadcaster Murray Deaker, it is an unfathomable romance anyway.

"New Zealand Cricket takes for granted the extraordinary amount of coverage it enjoys," Deaker said. "That coverage bears no resemblance to the lack of success it has on the international scene."

The coverage is, however, unquestionably dwindling.

Radio Sport last season ceased ball-by-ball coverage of the Plunket Shield, a stunning development for a station that was founded off the back of Sports Roundup, which was essentially a forum for the delivery of cricket commentary. There were a few ripples of discontent, but nothing that swayed the station's bosses to recant.

"I can't see us returning to ball-by-ball for the Plunket Shield," said Dallas Gurney, general manager of talk at the Radio Network, noting that it was more a content decision than a financial one.

"Ultimately there is a saving because you don't have to have a commentator at each game, but it's more in our view that long-form domestic cricket appeals to the aficionado whereas Radio Sport must appeal to a broader audience."

Gurney said cricket was still a ratings booster, particularly when New Zealand played at home. The England tour starting in March is expected to lift numbers.

The decision to leave long-time commentator Bryan Waddle at home for the recent Sri Lanka tour was a result of the financial demands of the rights holders, rather than lack of interest in the series.

There was no ball-by-ball commentary on the high-profile Australia-South Africa series either. Gurney would not say how much rights holders were seeking from the Radio Network in both instances, however the Herald understands that holders were asking about double what they sought in the past.

"We were disappointed about that because we'd have loved to have secured rights to broadcast the Sri Lanka series and would have loved to have had Bryan Waddle in Sri Lanka. Clearly it's an advantage in player accessibility when he travels with the team, but the rights holder wanted significantly more money and to be frank we couldn't justify it."

Cricket's relationship with the print media is strained and, according to Herald editor Shayne Currie, that probably reflects the public's affinity for the sport.

"People are more time-precious and although I personally love cricket, I struggle to spend a whole day at an international. The results of the Black Caps over the past five years or so have also seen a decline in interest," Currie said.

"If the Black Caps win like they did in Hobart last year it will always be front-page news, but unfortunately those moments are few and far between and the public wants more than wins against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka.

"The coverage and placement of stories will only increase with significant victories, but I challenge the average New Zealander to name that XI that just beat Sri Lanka. There's just not the names in that team like yesteryear."

There has also been a move (some would say an insidious creep) towards partially paid-for tours, where sponsors provide some of the funds for journalists to travel. This is happening across the sporting spectrum, it must be said, not just cricket.

"We have to look at innovative ways to get reporters on tours without compromising our integrity," Currie said. "The problem for New Zealand Cricket is if we're not on these tours then their sponsors aren't getting the exposure they would like. That's not really our problem. We're more interested in what the readers want and I don't believe that's a losing team. I haven't had one letter of complaint for us not being on the latest tour in Sri Lanka."

New Zealand Cricket does not necessarily have to worry about revenue from media coverage overseas because in April it secured an eight-year deal outsourcing broadcast rights from all tours to Pitch International, a deal understood to be worth in excess of US$100 million ($122 million). PI specialises in selling the rights to television, radio, internet and mobile phone content globally.

NZC retains the rights to New Zealand matches broadcast at home and to domestic competitions.

Perhaps NZC has become too comfortable. It's a theory that carries weight with Deaker. Along with fans who hark back to the olden days as if New Zealand has a golden cricketing heritage, it's the thing that perplexes the man in the booth the most.

"We've actually only ever had two patches of acceptable results - the 1980s, the golden era, and a smaller patch under Stephen Fleming.

"I find those two things really annoying: the ignorance of the average fan and NZC's acceptance of its privileged position of enjoying extraordinary media coverage as of right."

Deaker cited the example of speedway. In peak season, he reckoned as many fans turned up to speedway events in one night as there would be for an entire season of domestic cricket, yet the discrepancy of media coverage between the two sports was stark.

"Cricket authorities have become very precious about criticism but I think they should be thankful they're noticed at all."

'Black Caps' term has a strong, loyal following

For many fans, it's become the moniker that needs to go.

At the moment, the connotations associated with the name Black Caps are depressing.

However, two brand and marketing experts would stick with "Black Caps" for the New Zealand team's name.

New Zealand became known as the Black Caps - NZC would have you write it BLACKCAPS if they could - in January 1998, having been known as the "Young Guns" a few seasons earlier, despite the fact several players were far from youthful.

New Zealand Cricket's sponsor at the time, Clear Communications, held a competition to choose a name and Black Caps was the result.

But despite the name now being associated with a failing international team, notably at test level, both Martin Gillman, communications and marketing guru, and Dave Bibby, senior lecturer in advertising, marketing and communications at the Auckland University of Technology, would stick with it.

"It's not very creative calling it Black Whatever," Gillman said of the fondness for renaming many of the country's national sports teams.

Other sports to have gone the "Black" way include Black Sticks (both men's and women's hockey teams), Black Ferns (women's rugby), Tall Blacks (basketball) and Black Sox (softball) who have embraced the idea of nationality linkage.

"I personally don't have a problem with it," Gillman said of the name.

"It is a marketing ploy. The only problem is if they really are an appalling team it may well have a negative impact on our national identify in the overseas market."

Bibby believes it can be viewed positively.

"Black Caps has a ring about it," he said.

"Our premier brand is the All Blacks. The silver fern with black. Locking into that heritage and sense of national pride is a positive thing.

"A brand is just a short cut for a whole bunch of associations which people invest in. In your mind you have these perceptions, negative and positive. If you have more positives then you're favourable towards the brand. If you have more negatives then the brand's in trouble in terms of your loyalty as a fan."

He said that the name All Blacks "has an aura that transcends the functional description of the team, and I think Black Caps has that potential as well".

Gillman believes sports like the idea of using the "Black" prefix "because they want people to get behind them".

"If you say 'New Zealand cricket team', who cares? It could lose a little bit of sexiness and they need everything they can possibly get to try and give them a bit of a boost.

"Sadly it's not happening for them at the moment."

- NZ Herald

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