Meet the team that strategised Nine’s move from cricket to tennis

Nine’s Tom Malone on the changing menu at Wide World of Sports.

When we visited Tom Malone‘s office in the Wide World of Sport cottage adjacent to the Nine Network studio and office complex in Sydney we were offered a cup of tea that sits on a Cricket Australia coaster.

“Sorry,” Malone told Mediaweek when we noted the branding. “We haven’t updated yet!” [Laughs]

Despite being outbid for the domestic cricket rights for international clashes in Australia, Nine still has plenty of other sport – including cricket. Before our interview turned to NRL, netball and its new Tennis Australia partnership, the discussion came back to losing the cricket.

That triggers a green light for Malone, Nine’s director of sport, to roll off Nine’s continuing cricket schedule one more time: Australia in England in June for a ODI tournament and a T20 game this winter, then the 2019 ODI World Cup for men and women. “Next year of course we are the exclusive rights holder for the Ashes in the UK, which will be the first time Smith and Warner will be eligible for test selection again,” said Malone.

“We remain heavily invested in cricket for the next five years.”

Nine’s Tom Malone

Although Malone said he hadn’t run the numbers, Nine might have more international primetime cricket than Seven for the next couple of years. Seven of course will have many more nights of primetime Big Bash domestic clashes.

Nine has plenty to offer sports fans and advertisers chasing those audiences. “When I look at Wide World of Sports over the next five years, we are the home of rugby league, netball, premium cricket, tennis and we have the Masters Golf too,” said Malone.

He explained some of the reasoning behind the move to secure a deal with Tennis Australia. “With cricket you can’t control who you play, when you play, team performance or the weather. They are pretty significants inputs into a $100m business. When you look at tennis you get the top 256 players every year in the last two weeks of January over 14 consecutive nights… and if it rains you close the roof.”

Mediaweek asked Malone how serious Nine was about pursuing the cricket after it had secured the tennis. “We were fair dinkum. Obviously it made it harder after we got tennis, but we were still [bidding] in a joint venture with Channel Ten and we were keen to retain Test match cricket.

“It would have been a hard deal financially, but we could have stretched to it. We would have really had to double down on our revenue to make it work from a business point of view. We were keen, but not at any price. In the end the price was too high to make business sense.

Hugh Marks has always said since he was CEO we need to make decisions in the best interest of the business – that’s why we went for tennis.”

With loads of hype amidst claim and counter-claim swirling around during the negotiation of major sports rights, Malone said Nine was careful not to get caught up in it.

“A lot of that gets mythologised. In the end it is just another deal. You set up the parameters for what you think is best for your business and what you can afford to pay for something, what revenue you can write off the back of it and any other strategic benefits.

Nine CEO Hugh Marks and Tennis Australia chair Jayne Hrdlicka

“When you look at it through that prism and take the emotion out of it, it can be very simple.”

Malone said one of the exciting parts of the process when it came to tennis and cricket rights negotiations was the team Nine put together.

“We had a sports rights team working together for the best part of six months. That involved some great people at Nine including general counsel Rachel Launders, Alexi Baker and Georgia Carter from strategy, Sam Brennan from sales, Geoff Dyer from programming, Luke De La Haye from commerce, head of cricket Brent Williams and me. We would meet fortnightly for a couple of hours and update each other’s models.

Keeping the bid off the radar and out of the media was part of the Nine strategy.

“When we bought tennis it came as a surprise to a lot of people, including some people here at Nine. It was a very tight-knit group that worked very hard.”

There no surprise that Shane Warne departed Nine for Fox Sports, given that Malone explained to Mediaweek they don’t have a huge requirement for live calling on the international cricket coverage.

“For the ODIs and T20 match, Nine will most likely take the Sky UK commentary, but with local hostings. All the ICC events have a great host broadcast production that we can also use.

“For the Ashes next year we need to make a decision whether we will do our own production or we take the world feed commentary. Shane Warne will most likely be commenting for Sky on the Ashes next year, which would mean you would hear him on Nine.

“We do have a requirement for cricket content for our digital, news and sports magazine shows. We might keep one or two people to help facilitate that.”

Tomorrow: Nine’s Tom Malone on a summer without sport – how bad might it be? – plus Australian Open plans, NRL and State of Origin plus growing netball audiences.

Top photo: Roger Federer (credit: Shutterstock)

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