Free-to-air cricket in New Zealand: A lesson for declining viewership in sports broadcasting

Finn Allen in action for the Black Caps at University Oval. Photo / Photosport


While many sports are grappling with declining live and televised viewership, New Zealand Cricket (NZC) has emerged as a beacon of strategic thinking by prioritising accessibility over immediate financial gains.

Scott Weenink, the chief executive of NZC, recently expressed the organisation’s willingness to consider a reduction in broadcast revenue if it meant more cricket games being aired on free-to-air television.

NZC’s current broadcast deal is with TVNZ, a shift that occurred after the demise of Spark Sport’s streaming service. It has proven to be a pivotal decision for NZC. Cricket in New Zealand will be on free-to-air television until 2026, with the TVNZ+ streaming service playing a vital role in reaching a broader audience.

In the current economic landscape, marked by a cost-of-living crisis, inflation concerns, and the possibility of a recession, the financial burden on consumers has intensified. Against this backdrop, the subscription-based model that many sports broadcasting services adopt has become increasingly challenging for viewers. As individuals grapple with rising expenses, allocating funds to subscription services for the joy of watching sports is a luxury that often takes a backseat.

The multifaceted challenge is further compounded by the fragmented nature of content distribution, where different sports are scattered across various streaming platforms. Consumers are forced to subscribe to multiple services, each with its own subscription fee, to access a diverse range of sports content. This not only adds to the financial strain on viewers but also creates a logistical challenge in navigating the complex web of streaming platforms. New Zealand Cricket’s strategic move to prioritise free-to-air broadcasting aligns with the evolving economic landscape, recognising the importance of making sports accessible to a broad audience, particularly during times when financial constraints make traditional subscription models less tenable for many.

Speaking about the impact of returning to free-to-air TV, Weenink highlighted the surge in interest in the sport. The success of this move has prompted NZC to rethink its broadcasting strategy for the future. Weenink acknowledged the significant role broadcasting revenue plays in NZC’s overall revenue stream. However, the organisation is open to exploring a mixed model where some games remain free-to-air, while others may be behind a paywall.

The willingness to sacrifice immediate financial gains for broader accessibility reflects NZC’s commitment to the long-term growth and sustainability of cricket in New Zealand. Weenink stated that NZC would consider taking less money to keep games outside a paywalled medium, emphasising the importance of generating a larger audience and revenue through free-to-air platforms.

This strategic shift by NZC carries valuable lessons for other sports grappling with declining viewership. In an era where paywalled content is becoming more prevalent, NZC’s approach prioritises audience engagement and recognises the potential benefits of reaching a wider demographic. By considering alternative revenue streams, such as increased sponsorship revenue, NZC aims to strike a balance that serves the best interests of New Zealand cricket in the long term.

As other sports organisations worldwide assess their broadcasting strategies, the NZC model stands as a case study in adapting to changing viewer preferences. The focus on accessibility and audience reach, even at the cost of short-term financial gains, signals a proactive approach that could inspire similar moves in the broader sports industry. The upcoming home schedule for NZC promises exciting cricket action, and the organization’s strategic thinking will undoubtedly be closely observed by sports stakeholders globally.

Luke Kirkness is an Online Sports Editor for the NZ Herald. He previously covered consumer affairs for the Herald and was an assistant news director in the Bay of Plenty. He won Student Journalist of the Year in 2019.

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