Roberts, CA mull 'creative' solutions for next summer
As Australian cricket copes with the impact of COVID-19, its leaders are looking ahead at how the 2020-21 season can be played
21 April 2020, 07:26 PM AEST
Expanding this summer's scheduled India Test series to five matches, housing Virat Kohli's squad in a new hotel at Adelaide Oval and possibly shifting the Big Bash League within the summer are among the "creative" solutions being explored by Cricket Australia to make the 2020-21 season happen.
The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a significant financial hit to CA that has led to the imminent stand down of a majority of its workforce, and also cast doubt over the likelihood of major upcoming events including the men's T20 World Cup and the Border-Gavaskar Trophy Series against India.
But CA Chief Executive Kevin Roberts today outlined a range of scenarios being discussed to have cricket played, even if matches are staged in empty stadia, which in turn will bolster the organisation's financial position and that of other cricket nations around the globe.
Roberts confirmed the idea of growing the regular Border-Gavaskar Trophy series – which have historically featured four Tests – to five-matches has been discussed with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in recent years with an eye to the next programming cycle due to start in 2023.
While there was no immediate plan to expand the scheduled four-Test series for next summer, such is the economic impact of India touring with its enormous television viewing audience – reportedly worth around $300 million to CA's coffers in 2020-21 – it remains up for discussion.
"We've discussed a shared desire to evolve to a five-Test series between Australia and India in the future, just like both our nations play five Tests series against England," Roberts told a video media conference today.
"It's something we're both committed to, in principle, in the future and the big question is whether or not we can bring that in before the next Future Tours (Program) cycle in 2023.
"We don't know what realistic prospect there is of that next season, but certainly with a changing landscape that's moving every single day we won't rule out the possibility of that until we get closer to the time, even though all the planning has been done based on a four-Test series thus far."
Roberts also confirmed CA would consider housing India's players and support staff at a 'quarantine hub' such as Adelaide Oval's yet-to-be-completed 128-room hotel where Kohli's squad could remain to train and play during the Test campaign without the need for additional travel.
It is understood CA has been exploring a bio-security plan that would include charter flights for players and support staff, a period of isolation upon arrival and access to training amenities that a venue such as Adelaide Oval and its adjacent No.2 ground can provide.
"At this point, we won't rule anything out in terms of the Indian series," Roberts said.
"Along with the BCCI and the Indian players and support staff, we want to stage a series that inspires the cricket world whether there's people at the venue, sitting in the stands, or not."
CA also remains hopeful of hosting the men's T20 World Cup scheduled for October and November, and continues to take Federal Government advice on how that might happen while adhering to health advice and guidelines.
And despite a preference to retain the KFC Big Bash League in its traditional window from mid-December to early-February, so rapidly is the landscape changing Roberts indicated CA might "play with the timing of the tournament" if it worked best in a revised schedule.
The preparedness to consider all possibilities and "creative solutions" to minimise adverse impact on the 2020-21 season also reflects the critical timing of the coronavirus crisis, which hit CA at the most vulnerable point in its four-year business cycle.
A reality of cricket's feast and famine revenue fluctuations is that the game's biggest drawcards – the quadrennial Ashes tours by England and visits by India – subsidise the seasons when comparatively smaller series are scheduled.
CA ended the 2016 fiscal year (the previous corresponding point of the four-year cycle) holding approximately $270 million in cash and investments as a result of financial returns from the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup and the T20 Champions League.
With a planned operating deficit of around $50 million to coincide with the South Africa and Pakistan tours for men's Tests in the summer of 2016-17 and with bills to pay, CA needed significant cash reserves that financial year.
One of those extraordinary items was the $70 million owed to players at the end of the Memorandum of Understanding in 2017, and the following year it was $55 million in players' retirement funds shifted to the Australian Cricketers' Association.
That retirement fund remains jointly controlled by CA and the ACA, but the decision to transfer it to the ACA's ledger underscored the growing goodwill between the two parties in the aftermath of the MOU stand-off.
That sum, alongside the $70 million paid to players and the $50m deficit in 2017, accounted for the downsizing of CA's assets from the high-watermark of 2016.
As CA approached the corresponding 'down swing' four years later – with last summer featuring lesser drawcards Pakistan and New Zealand after bumper Test seasons with England (2017-18) and India (2018-19) – total cash and investments at the end of June 2019 totalled $117 million.
That was spread across share holdings (around $40 million), risk-averse fixed-income investments ($50 million) with the balance comprising around $26 million in cash.
In a pre-coronavirus world, that safety net of cash and investments was budgeted to bottom-out at around $40 million before India arrived next summer.
Such is the financial clout of world cricket's biggest drawcard, the cash and investments balance would have bounced back to around $100 million by the start of the India Test series.
Combined with the home Ashes series scheduled for 2021-22, this would have seen CA on track to realise their four-year reserves goal of $70 million by June 2023.
But nobody in world sport, global politics or international money markets foresaw the pandemic that has laid waste to stock markets, entire economies and normal life from mid-March.
At that point, CA's cash position of $97 million (down from June 30's $117 million due to the FY20 deficit year) fostered cautious optimism it might be better placed to withstand the oncoming financial tsunami than were Australia's football codes, just embarking on their 2020 seasons.
However, so brutal was the domino effect on industries and markets, CA's reserves dwindled by $20-25 million in a matter of weeks.
That was due to a raft of reasons including revenue foregone from a cancelled men's ODI series against NZ, inability of some debtors to make payments, ongoing costs associated with hosting the proposed men's T20 World Cup later this year and a reduction in the value of share investments.
CA's share portfolio had grown strongly from $41 million at June 30 last year through to the market peak in February 2020, before declining to $36 million today.
Of far greater concern was the outlook for the remainder of this year, given the pace at which the financial landscape was changing, plus the growing uncertainty over when or if travel and other virus-related restrictions might be eased to allow a resumption of professional sport.
Having crunched the numbers on how their position might look if no further financial shocks were forthcoming, the $40 million CA had budgeted as the low-water mark to be reached around August-September this year was likely closer to $15-20 million.
But if, as Roberts warned staff last week, the pecuniary pain continued and operating expenses were not drastically reduced, CA's reserves could evaporate to nothing in a matter of months, with that dire prospect also coinciding with the nadir of CA's four-year cash cycle.
As Roberts explained: "If we don't take action here, it's akin to driving a car while looking in the rear vision mirror rather than out of the windscreen."
"Just because the issue so far is $20-25 million less than our budgeted position, we can't put our head in the sand and hope that's the worst of it, especially given that three months ago nobody in the world would have had any idea we'd be living in lockdown for the first time in our lives.
"So as a result of what we've seen in the past few weeks, who can accurately project where the world's going to be six months from now?
"That said, we are doing everything possible to minimise the impact on the 2020-21 season."
It's with that maxim in mind that Roberts, following discussions with CA's Board, announced last week that around 80 per cent of the organisation's staff – including national coaches Justin Langer (men's) and Matthew Mott (women's) – would be stood down on reduced pay for the remainder of the financial year.
He said today that reduction in salary payments accounted for around $3 million of the $20 million savings CA has implemented in recent weeks.
The pruning of CA's operating costs is part of a four-pronged strategy also being adopted by the nation's major football codes – both of whom have stood down non-essential staff - as sport attempts to shock-proof itself against potentially devastating financial exposure.
CA has also been working through the cost-cutting within its constituent states and territory bodies (the equivalent of individual AFL and NRL clubs), with CEOs in all Australia cities dialing into video calls every second business day for the past month while virtual group meetings of all state and territory chairs are held weekly.
CA has also formed working groups with membership from across the nation to focus on planning and programs for community cricket, high performance and the BBL competitions.
Due to uncertainty surrounding its 2020-21 summer schedule, CA is also seeking credit of $150 million (somewhat less than the NRL, while the AFL has reportedly secured over $600 million) to underwrite its operations lest the worst-case scenario - including no India Test series - materialise.
In order to enhance their bid for finance, they must show they have reduced business costs which will also include reconsidering player payments for 2020-21 in consultation with players and the ACA.
Roberts confirmed today that CA was working closely and regularly with the ACA, but declined to comment further on those discussions that were taking place privately.
"We respect the player payment model that is in place now, we intend to continue respecting that, just as the ACA and the players and everyone acknowledges that, in the interim, we need some creative solutions," Roberts said.
Former Test allrounder and current ACA president Shane Watson said today the players recognised the importance of working collaboratively with CA to weather such an unprecedented event.
"We're all together on this, we've got to work through it as well as we possibly can," Watson said on an upcoming episode of The Unplayable Podcast.
"We are all partners in the game and, as partners, it means you've got to work through the different challenges, the different things that arise, good and bad, and that's exactly what we're doing.
"Everyone is so appreciative of how fortunate we are, from a professional cricket point of view, to be able to play the game we absolutely love and get looked after very well financially in that as well.
"We're in it together."