Friday, 24 February 2012

Sofa, so bad - Or...

...why the merger between The Cricketer and Test Match Sofa is wonderful news for them and terrible news for many more

We are barely two months into the new year and already cricket has thrown up enough talking points to last us the whole year. There's been the resurgence of Pakistan, the ongoing decline of India, the increasing likelihood of Sachin Tendulkar ending his career on 99 international hundreds and so many more, yet the most controversial story of all seems to have taken place off of the pitch and indeed nowhere near a stadium or administrators office at all.

I speak, of course, of the purchase of alternative commentary broadcaster Test Match Sofa by fusty old Cricketer magazine. A surprising move, yes, but one which has stirred up a furore that none of those involved could have envisaged.

I should probably declare several interests at this point. Back in September 2008 a well known cricket writer and I conceived the idea for something very similar to Test Match Sofa. Unfortunately this coincided with me starting a new job and him landing a book deal, and nothing came of it. I therefore have nothing but admiration for the people who had the inspiration, time, energy and resources to set up Test Match Sofa and make it work so well.

In addition, I know a number of those involved in the deal. I have played cricket alongside some of the Sofa lot. Andrew Miller, editor of the Cricketer, is someone I have met on several occasions, 100% of which have involved alcohol. The magazine's publication director Andy Afford gave me my first writing job for a cricket magazine (even if he did keep forgetting to credit me). I have no axe to grind with any of them and I am certainly not going to join the chorus of people crying 'kissy kissy sell out' at the parties.

All of which is why I feel so bad that I can only see this merger as a bad thing. I know that it was necessary if the Sofa was to continue and I applaud the Cricketer for reaching out to a younger audience. I know that the Sofa is breaking no laws by what it does (I've done the research, remember) and that the ECB and BBC are making themselves look even more foolish than usual with their bleating about it. And yet to me this deal echoes of nothing but the sound of doors closing.

One of the great pleasures of the past few years has been watching bloggers slowly insinuate themselves into the mainstream media, and this is perhaps more prevalent in sport than in any other sphere of journalism. It has been my delight to see Jarrod Kimber progress from his scabrous, scatological Cricket With Balls site to the pages of Cricinfo and on to the point where the man is now making a film about the decline of Test cricket.

The internet has also presented a wonderful opportunity for women to show that they, too, have a deep knowledge and understanding of sports. In South Africa Ant Sims became one of the nation's leading sports bloggers before most people even realised that she had two x chromosomes and can now be found gracing the pages of no less an institution than Sports Illustrated. Meanwhile, in the UK, Lizzy Ammon – herself a Sofa alumnus - has gone from being a reluctant blogger unsure if she had anything new to say to providing online commentary for The Mirror newspaper. There really is a whole new world of opportunities out there.

Or is there? The problem is that for every blogger who makes these steps, dozens don't. Even after you weed out the ones who lack dedication and/or talent, there are still a substantial number for whom the door is never opened. And with each successful blogger, there is a door shutting behind them to so many others.

Which is why the Cricketer-Sofa deal is a bad thing. Suddenly, a part of the cricket establishment has control over the one opening there is for wannabe cricket broadcasters. At the same time, the magazine has a ready supply of new, enthusiastic freelance writers at its beck and call. Quite where this leaves those who currently commentate but who are already tied to other publications is anyone's guess, but the future for them doesn't look rosy at all.

There will be those who blanche at that last statement, but you don't even have to be as cynical as I am to realise that however much Miller et al might deny it, there is going to come a point where it happens. Some suit with a calculator and a balance sheet is going to become involved. They are going to wonder why the broadcast medium that they paid a six figure sum for isn't sourcing its talent from the people they are already paying. Instead of two breeding grounds for new talent, you get the same old faces revolving in and out, much like the England team of the 1990s.

As a result, the door into cricket broadcasting is shut because it has a new, establishment, doorman and a number of doors into cricket writing are blocked off because someone has put a Sofa across them. However much you love what each organisation does, you can't pretend that this is a good thing.

For possibly the first time ever, I've written something in the hope that I will be proved wrong.