Channel 9 loses cricket TV rights after 40 years

SYDNEY — Channel Nine, which brought cricket to Australian television viewers for 40 years and influenced the way the sport is covered around the world, has lost a billion dollar bidding duel for broadcasting rights to Australia's national game.

Cricket Australia announced Friday it had concluded a new rights deal with free-to-air broadcaster Channel Seven and its pay TV partner Foxtel reportedly worth $1 billion over six years.

For four decades Nine's cricket coverage had been an omnipresent feature of the Australian summer, bringing test, one-day matches and Twenty20 internationals into living rooms across the nation. Its style of using a large stable of high profile former players to provide idiosyncratic commentary in a manner which departed from cricket's former, stuffy manner won it fans, and critics, around the world.

It became the template for television coverage and commentary in almost every other nation where cricket is played. Headed for more than three decades by former Australian captain Richie Benaud, with regular commentators such as test greats Tony Greig, Bill Lawrie, Ian Chappell and, more recently Shane Warne, Nine provided an enormous resource of expert analysis based on experience.

Fans outside Australia often criticized the coverage as too parochial but Australian fans felt a close attachment to commentators many had known for most of their lives, welcoming them into their living room as familiar figures.

Channel Nine's coverage began when its owner, the swashbuckling multi-millionaire Kerry Packer, threw world cricket into turmoil in the 1970s by launching his rebel World Series Cricket, which included almost all of the world's best players. Packer introduced day-night cricket, plus the colored clothing and white ball that are now standard in limited overs cricket. When cricket's officialdom was forced to make peace with Packer, he owned not only the players and much of the game but the established platform for the sport in Australia, Channel Nine.

Cricket Australia's decision to part ways with Nine is almost as revolutionary as the circumstances under which the network's coverage came into being. It also reallocated the rights to the Big Bash Twenty20 League, which former holder Channel 10 had turned into one of Australia's most popular television sports.

The futures of the current commentary team — Englishman Mark Nicholas and former Australian stars Chappell, Warne, Ian Healy, Michael Clarke, Mark Taylor and Michael Slater — is uncertain.

"I won't have a clue what it's going to be like," Healy said. "I've had 40 summers full of cricket. I've never had a summer holiday. That might be okay."

In a statement, Nine said it is "immensely proud of our decades long association between Wide World of Sports and the game of cricket in this country. We wish Cricket Australia and its new broadcast partners well for the future success of the game."

Nine still owns rights to next year's Ashes test series in England and the next one-day and T20 World Cups.

Friday's deal allayed any concerns Cricket Australia may have had that the ball tampering scandal that recently engulfed the Australian team might have reduced its value.

The deal also challenges Australian values that demand the country's national game should be available free-to-air. While an estimated 80 percent of matches will still be available without charge, some internationals will go behind a pay-TV pay wall.

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