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Issue #1786      July 19, 2017

Cricket pay dispute

Union busting exercise

On June 30, 230 of Australia’s top professional men’s cricketers became unemployed because of a dispute with the sport’s national body, Cricket Australia (CA). Members of the Australian women’s side also face unemployment after they return from the current World Cup tournament. About 70 men’s state players who were not originally involved in the seven month-long dispute have joined the other players in solidarity.

Australia captain Smith refuses to back down in pay dispute.

CA wants to dump the current revenue-sharing arrangement under which players receive 24.5 percent of all cricket revenues, with the money allocated according to each player’s grade and team member ranking. Instead, it wants to introduce individual contracts, which would inevitably result in the pitting of one player against another and major pay cuts.

In the hope of resolving the dispute, players are still training. However, CA appears intent on breaking their union, the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA), and implemented an industrial lockout by terminating contracts and refusing to negotiate with players who would not cooperate. The average pay of Australia’s international players is currently about $1.16 million per annum. However, cricketers put in years of training with lower pay or none at all. Few gain a place in the top ranks, and those who do usually retain that position for less than 10 years. When players retire, finding other work is often difficult because all their focus has been devoted to the sport. Players at state level receive an average of $40,000.

CA is refusing to release about $3 million it currently owes players as back pay.

Its executive Pat Howard also says unemployed players will not necessarily be offered new contracts, and applications for them will be considered on a “case-by-case” basis, implying that players who took a leading part in the dispute might not get an offer.

Battles behind the scoreboard

Cricket has now become a massive money spinner for CA, and for Channel Nine and Channel Ten, who own the rights to broadcast matches. But CA claims it needs more cash from cricket revenues to encourage up-and-coming young cricketers. It employed a similar tactic some years ago when ACA battled to gain better pay for women’s cricketers.

At that time CA declared that a pay increase for women players should come from a windfall increase in profits that had benefited men players – i.e., the men should pay for the women players’ pay rise!

Not surprisingly, ACA refused. CA chairman Wally Edwards then thundered hypocritically that the union was “embarrassingly out of step with modern Australia, and perpetuates perceptions around cricket as a male-dominated sport with little regard for fairness, the role women play in our sport and what is important to the current state and future of our game.”

ACA president Greg Dyer replied there was no shortage of funds for CA to pay the women fairly because for every dollar going to men players CA kept more than three. After the women’s team refused to tour the US in 2015, CA was forced to substantially increase their pay. The audience for women’s cricket matches has now grown spectacularly, as have the profits.

But issues over women’s cricket continue to rankle. CA has proposed new contracts that would in effect penalise women players who become pregnant. In the current dispute CA’s principal negotiator, former Rio Tinto executive David Peever, has been so obstructive and aggressive that ACA insisted on CA chief executive James Sutherland being present during negotiations.

Greg Combet, acting negotiator for ACA, commented: “Cricket Australia obviously thinks the players will crack under the financial pressure ... If you look at Rio Tinto ... that is how they de-unionised their operations.”

After CA’s current broadcast rights deal expires next year it will have earned $600 million over five years. It was eagerly anticipating that strong bidding for the next rights period would bring in $900 million, i.e. $120 million for the international test and one-day matches, and $60 million for the Big Bash series.

The value of Big Bash rights was expected to rise rapidly. However, Channel 10, which currently owns the rights, has gone into receivership. If it can’t recover, there will be one less competitor bidding for the rights next year, and the value of the bids will fall. CA has therefore asked the Federal Court to delay Ten’s next creditors’ meeting, in the hope that federal parliament will soon dump the current media ownership restrictions, enabling one of the major media corporations to buy Channel 10 and support it financially.

Greed versus wisdom

The dispute has led to cancellation of the Australian team’s tour of South Africa, and is now threatening both Channel Nine and Channel Ten with the loss of advertising sponsorship if the vastly profitable Ashes and Big Bash matches are also cancelled.

Tours by Indian and English teams underwrite all Australian test cricket matches. Moreover, cancellation of the scheduled overseas tours would certainly result in legal action against CA by India and England. When the West Indies cancelled a tour of India in 2014 over a pay dispute, the Indian cricket organisation sued its West Indian counterpart for $55 million.

And ACA has now created an organisation called “The Cricketers’ Brand”, which has signed up all the senior players to manage their commercial intellectual property rights. That arrangement would enable ACA to license cricketers to play overseas, by entering into deals directly with the administrators of the Ashes and other test organisations, (thus by-passing CA altogether), and to enter into sponsorship deals with business rivals of current CA sponsors.

Success in competitive sport does not just depend on the technical skill and fitness of the players, nor on the crassly commercial sponsorship deals, but on the morale of the players and their relationship with their sport’s administrators, and more importantly, the grass roots of the game, from the park playing juniors upwards.

While CA has been obsessively attacking revenue sharing, Australian Rules football players have amiably entered into a revenue-sharing deal with the AFL, and League players are currently negotiating one with the RFL.

The cricket players’ situation, and the future of Australian cricket itself, has been jeopardised by Cricket Australia’s insatiable greed. It’s most unlikely that CA will emerge as the winner from the current dispute. The question is, how much damage will it cause to the game itself?

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