Channel Seven divulge private dialogue as part of Cricket Australia claim

Private dialogue between Seven executives and Cricket Australia has been divulged by the network as part of its ongoing argument for a discount to their rights fees in what has become an increasingly ugly spectacle for the two parties.

An affidavit lodged with the Australian Federal Court on Monday, written by Seven’s head of sport Lewis Martin, outlines the network’s creeping anxiety about the summer schedule and particularly its changes from the originally published fixture – released by CA on May 28 – despite the governing body’s repeated insistence that any plans needed to be subject to change due to coronavirus pandemic.

It culminates in the written reproduction of conversations between Martin, CA’s head of commercial Steph Beltrame, its head of cricket operations Peter Roach, and the head of the Big Bash League, Alistair Dobson. The first conversation took place on August 7, a matter of weeks before Seven’s complaints about CA went public on August 25. The more recent exchange, between Martin and Beltrame, is reported to have taken place around November 12.

Seven’s quest for a discount to its A$450 million portion of the A$1.2 billion rights deal signed alongside Foxtel in 2018 has taken it from multiple private conversations through the early part of the year, to public criticism of CA from the chief executive James Warburton since the time of its financial reporting in August, a request for independent assessment of the rights fee through the Australian Chamber for International and Commercial Arbitration, and now lodgment of court documents seeking the release of further correspondence between CA, the BCCI and Foxtel.

The network’s primary complaint all along has been about the value of the BBL, which the network bought the rights to in 2018 at the same time CA confirmed plans to vastly expand it to a 14-game full home and away fixture, even though broadcast audiences had been trending down since the tournament peaked in 2016 while being aired exclusively on Ten. Much of the early part of 2020 had been devoted to meetings between the broadcasters and CA about how to improve the competition for its 10th edition.

However the shift of the IPL from April to October and the subsequent postponement of the T20 World Cup in Australia from this year to 2022, meant CA needed to make substantial changes to its plans, namely to push back the Test series against India – which Seven has rights to broadcast alongside Fox Cricket – and start the home international season with ODI and T20I matches that Seven does not have rights to as a result of the 2018 deal. Seven is arguing these changes were made due to the wishes of the BCCI, rather than circumstances forced by Covid.

In the August 7 conversation reproduced by Martin, he discusses the changes with Dobson and Roach.

Martin: “Guys, this is a radical shift from anything we have talked about or contemplated.”

Dobson: “Lewis, how so? What’s the issue?”

Martin: “Any one of these options is a radical departure from the published schedule. We have been working out our planning for the season based on the published schedule since May. This is ridiculous. This is not the season we have been planning for. Why have you put the ‘white ball’ (T20 and ODI) matches before the first India Test and BBL season start?”

Roach: “The Indians won’t quarantine twice. They want their Test players and white-ball players to quarantine together at the same time, and then after the white-ball matches are played the white-ball players can go home and the Test players will stay in Australia.”

Subsequent to this conversation, Warburton went on a public attack against CA, stating on August 25: “It’s been frustrating with Cricket Australia, that’s for sure. Ultimately … they need to look at what is possible to deliver, stop talking about international borders being closed, or borders being closed, and start to look at what really is the season we are going to deliver. Like we have done with the AFL, our obligation then is to really deliver something for the fans and the players and to put our best foot forward for all of our commercial partners as well.

“But, at the moment, you pick up the paper every day and you read four or five different things. You have got the Australian T20 and one-day captain saying one thing, you have got the coach saying another, you have got BBL franchises talking about no international players – or [having more] grade cricketers. We could send the cameras down for free to telecast grade cricket.”

On August 28, Warburton escalated his rhetoric further, referring to CA as “the most incompetent administration I’ve ever worked with, and going on to say: “This is not an acceptable product and we will not support the season. Cricket Australia have an obligation to deliver a competition of no lesser standard than the past. What a bumbling, stumbling administration. How stupid to schedule international cricket against the BBL and drain the resources of a competition already under pressure. It’s a joke and it rips off the fans.”

The November conversation, again reproduced by Martin, has him debating the schedule with Beltrame, who is left to state the obvious.

Martin: “You easily cancelled the 3 x West Indies T20 matches, the World Cup was cancelled and the Afghan Test was cancelled, so why couldn’t the three T20s against India be cancelled as well? Had you postponed or cancelled the 3 x T20s and left the 3 x ODIs where they were, the summer we built would largely be intact.”

Beltrame: “The West Indies did not have a series and it has been postponed and not cancelled. The Afghan Test has been postponed and not cancelled. We have done so much for Seven. It is a worldwide pandemic for god’s sake Lewis, nobody knows that more than you.”

Martin: “The West Indies T20s and the Afghan Test haven’t ruined the summer the way the six white-ball matches and the Australia A match have. Why don’t you postpone the 3 x T20s and allow that ripping summer we built through the year to happen and give BBL 2.0 the best chance?”

Beltrame: “You keeping saying 2.0 (while referring to the 2020-21 season of BBL cricket).”

Martin: “Your CEO called it 2.0.”

Beltrame: “He referred to it once in a meeting.”

Martin: “He referred to it several times in conversation with me. Steph why did you jam those six matches against India? They have had a huge impact on our business and any chance of the BBL recovering.”

Beltrame: “We don’t think it has, we have done so much for Seven. We think we will deliver the summer.”

Martin: “Those six white ball matches have meant 50 per cent less BBL prime time matches pre Christmas, competing schedule with Aust A, no players, less Test matches pre Christmas. Surely you must see how this has impacted us?”

Beltrame: “Lewis, we have a 10 match bilateral agreement with BCCI. I have to go but I am happy to continue the conversation later.”

At the same time as it released these conversations and requested access to more correspondence, Seven argued for privacy in terms of the terms of its media rights agreement with CA. “The terms of the MRA are confidential and many of its terms are commercially sensitive to Seven,” Martin wrote. “The public disclosure of those terms would be likely to prejudice Seven’s ability to negotiate future rights agreements both with CA and other sporting bodies.”

Prior to the release of the affidavit, CA’s interim chief executive, Nick Hockley, decried Seven’s approach to seeking a rights discount at a time when the summer was well underway.

“With so much positivity around Australian cricket, it is disappointing that Seven West Media has again chosen to use the media to talk our wonderful game down,” Hockley said. “CA has maintained all along our commitment to delivering a thrilling summer of cricket and on behalf of all involved, be that governments, partners, players and staff, I’m proud to say we are doing just that. We remain confident in our contractual position.

“We continue to have tremendous respect for the hardworking people across Channel 7’s cricket and news broadcast teams and congratulate them on the substantial increase in ratings cricket has delivered them to date this season. We have, and will continue to, fulfil our obligations to our partners and supporters by scheduling a brilliant summer of cricket, despite the cost and complexity of doing so given the current public health situation.”

As for Martin’s public positioning, he told Media Week in October: “We love our cricket and we are hoping there will be a sustainable outcome for the sport. Seven is the home of cricket. We love cricket, but we are looking for a sustainable outcome in these dynamic times.”

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