Ashes 'back on free-to-air TV in 2013'

Monday, October 12 2009, 11:46 BST

By Andrew Laughlin,

Live coverage of the Ashes cricket tournament between England and Australia will return to free-to-air television in 2013, according to The Daily Telegraph.

A panel of experts led by former FA executive director David Davies came together last week to review the list of sporting events that are currently protected for broadcast on free-to-air television.

This summer, all live action from the Ashes tournament was only available on Sky Sports, with a highlights programme screened later on Five.

Around 2 million peak time viewers watched Sky's coverage of the final test at the Oval this year, which is a marked contrast to the 7 million who tuned in for the same game in 2005 when it was shown on Channel 4.

However, the review panel is expected to fully back provisions for the showpiece event to return to free-to-air TV when it next comes to English soil in 2013.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, a senior government source said: "It's a no-brainer. This is one thing we can do that chimes in with the wishes of millions of voters."

However, if the move does ahead, it will likely anger the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), which views the money gained from TV deals as vital for funding grassroots cricket development in the UK.

Back in 1998, the ECB lobbied for Test matches to be removed from the protected list, which enabled it to agree a £220m TV rights deal with Sky. A further £300m deal with the satcaster will come into force next year, which includes the 2013 Ashes tournament.

The ECB is therefore likely to mount a legal challenge if the review panel's recommendations are pushed through by the government, especially as it sees limited recent interest from public service broadcasters in screening live Test coverage.

A spokesperson for the body said: "The ECB gave evidence to the review panel setting out the significant financial damage to investment in the grassroots game and the potential impact on hundreds of thousands of players in the recreational game if Test cricket were to be listed.

"We also explained how no terrestrial broadcaster has bid for live cricket in the last contract and the BBC has failed to bid since 1998. The BBC itself has not called for cricket to be listed and has consistently said that the difficulty of scheduling Test cricket has been the reason for their lack of a bid even when, as in 2008, they had the financial ability to do so.

"The ability to schedule events is one of the key criteria for A listing as laid down by this review panel and so any decision to re-list cricket would seem to fly in the face of the available evidence as well as the BBC's own argument. The ECB has been reassured from discussions with DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] that there is no substance to stories that the review group's work has been pre-judged by government."

The review panel will submit its findings to DCMS at the end of this month before ministers decide if any changes to legislation are required.