You'd think you couldn't go wrong broadcasting cricket to Australians.

But Channel Nine is apparently losing tens of millions of dollars a year with its cricket coverage.

According to analysis by investment bank UBS, Nine Entertainment only generates gross revenues of A$60 million (NZ$65m) to A$70m a year from cricket, compared with the A$100m or so a year it pays Cricket Australia for the broadcast rights.

As the current deal comes to an end, the investment bank is urging Nine to walk away from broadcasting cricket unless it can drive a better deal.

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Nine and Cricket Australia will be negotiating after an explosion in the price for TV sports rights. Seven, Foxtel and Telstra paid A$2.508 billion for six years of Aussie Rules rights in 2015. In the same year, the NRL secured a five year deal with Fox Sports, the Nine Network and Telstra worth A$1.8b.

But it looks like the big money won't flow through to cricket.

By contrast, Nine only paid A$450m for the five years of rights to international test, one day and Twenty20 matches in 2013, and it is very doubtful that Nine will pay any more this time around.

It is in a very strong negotiating position, because it is really the only realistic bidder.
The two government-owned networks, ABC and SBS, won't bid because neither could justify spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on competing for rights to a sport that another broadcaster wants to show.

Nor are the other commercial networks likely to put in an offer.

The Seven Network is fully committed with the Aussie Rules and the Olympics. Ten network was a bidder last time, helping to keep the price up, but it won't be able to make a competitive offer this time around.

On Thursday Ten reported at A$232m loss. The network needs to convince its billionaire shareholders Lachlan Murdoch, James Packer and Bruce Gordon to back a new A$250m loan if it is going to keep operating. The company's market capitalisation (the value of all its shares) has slumped to just A$110m.

Ten missed out on the international cricket rights last time, but astutely snapped up the rights to the Big Bash League, the domestic Twenty-20 competition for just A$20 million a year.

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The Big Bash League has proved a ratings winner and another five years of rights is estimated to be as worth as much as A$300m, way beyond Ten's capacity.
Another difficulty is that pay TV isn't in the picture. Under "anti-siphoning" legislation, free-to-air networks have first refusal rights over significant sporting events, including international cricket. (It also means we don't have to pay to watch the Wallabies lose to the All Blacks every year.)

All of this means that Nine is likely to be able to drive a very good deal and that Cricket Australia will miss out on the sports rights bonanza.

Nine is likely to push for the Big Bash League to be included in the deal and won't pay much if any more than last time. It will also seek more of a say over the scheduling and timing of cricket fixtures.

Channel Nine is synonymous with cricket in Australia. It has broadcast Australia's international matches for four decades after then network owner Kerry Packer wrestled the rights away from the ABC.

He famously did this by poaching the world's best players for his own rebel competition, changing cricket forever in the process, with international one day fixtures and garishly coloured uniforms (with New Zealand's beige kit of the 1980s a notable exception.)

Packer backed Cricket Australia into a corner and in the end it had no choice but to give him the rights.

Aside from being a cricket lover, Packer saw that sport was a much cheaper way of producing many hours of content than making a soap opera, for instance.

Not that his coverage was cheap. Packer was justifiably proud of innovations he brought to sports broadcasting that helped make cricket such a TV success and such a cash cow for him.

But it is less of a success now as ratings fall. For instance, the prime-time evening sessions of last summer's One Day International series against New Zealand recorded an average of 936,000 viewers across Australia's five largest capital cities, down from 1.215 million for the first three ODIs of the previous summer between Australia and India, while crowds have also been underwhelming. Test viewership fell by similar levels.

Nine will probably hold on to the cricket, simply because there's no one else who wants it or could afford it. Cricket Australia has found itself once again backed into a corner.

Timing is everything in cricket, and unfortunately the timing is all wrong for the sporting body.