Max Parry goes behind the scenes at The Kia Oval to investigate Surrey’s expanded streaming setup, which could revolutionise the county game as we know it.
Stepping into the commentary box at The Oval, as Surrey field against Middlesex on the final day of their warm-up match – the first men’s cricket this historic ground has seen in months – you would be forgiven for assuming the match was being commercially broadcast. But the face-masked director selecting which images will appear next upon the viewer’s screen doesn’t work for Sky, but for Surrey, and the footage is being beamed out not into pubs and onto TVs, but onto mobile phones and laptop screens via Surrey’s Facebook page and website.
The club, having recently signed a streaming deal with the social media giant, are trialling their new eight-camera broadcasting technology ahead of the start of their Bob Willis Trophy and T20 Blast campaigns. It could prove to be a game-changing move that sees their viewing figures sky-rocket, paving the way for a revolution in how county cricket is covered.
Free from the regulatory constraints of the previous streaming agreement, Surrey’s coverage features BBC radio commentary over shots from moving cameras, one of which is manned. For supporters of the south-London based county, the days of a solitary grainy shot, straight down from the sightscreen with its viewfinder fixed firmly on the 22 yards, are over. The viewing experience might not quite pass for Sky quality, but county streams in years past can’t hold a candle to what Surrey are now offering; it’s a striking improvement.
Although the streaming of Surrey’s games on Facebook Watch is just emerging as the Covid crisis is easing, it’s actually been in the pipeline for some time, as Jon Surtees, head of communications at Surrey, explains. “We’ve been talking to Facebook for a little while,” he tells Wisden.com. “We knew from a while ago that the rights were going to change – this is the first year of the new TV deal, so that’s why the rights have changed. So we have been working out a way of taking advantage of the new stuff we have available to us.”
Still, the impact of the novel coronavirus, which will keep spectators away from The Oval for the time being after the government sidelined a pilot scheme to get crowds back into grounds, offers a window on the digital front, and the new streaming platform provides “an opportunity to draw huge numbers of eyes to the game both in this country and in the broader world”, according to Surtees. In previous seasons Surrey might regularly have had over 1,000 people watching their games live online, but with 345,000 Facebook followers, Surtees believes that number could spiral upwards.
Surrey's multi-camera stream was practically tailor-made for Amar Virdi's celebrations 😅pic.twitter.com/Kx9IXGKrlh
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) August 1, 2020
Despite the optimism around the potential of a massive hike in viewing figures, at present, money isn’t the focus. “This is not a financial play at all; we’re not making money,” says Surtees. “These broadcasts aren’t being monetised. It’s clearly stated in the contract that we are not allowed to sell our rights on. There’ll be no advertising on the broadcasting. For me this all about eyeballs not pound notes.”
Regardless of the lack of revenue however, other counties have also invested in the necessary technology and are trialling multi-camera streaming. The two-day friendly between Yorkshire and Lancashire in July was streamed using four separate cameras, for both county’s members, while Somerset have enjoyed success too, boasting figures of over 2 million views on their streaming platform across the 2019 season.
Surtees says more and more counties are at the very least considering investing in the technology, with the domestic game embracing a spirit of sharing rather than being competitively guarded. “I’m talking to other counties all the time who understand the potential of it – it’s just a question sometimes trying to find the budget to get it done,” Surtees says. “But every county is well aware of what they’re able to do,”
There’s joy to be found for fans of both the short and long-form. “These rights extend to T20 as well – it’s all domestic games,” Surtees adds. “Clearly the Championship and T20 are a very different viewing experience but, you know, we’re able to stream every game that we play in any competition that is not broadcast by Sky. So we’re going to be able to stream sold-out games with 26,000 people at the Kia Oval on a Friday night between Surrey against Middlesex. If Sky choose to be elsewhere that night and cover the Roses game or Somerset-Gloucester, or any of the other brilliant games that could be being played anywhere around the country that night, then we have the rights to stream that live on Facebook – it’s an amazing thing.
“Any fans across the world who like cricket will want to tune in and watch Aaron Finch and Jason Roy opening the batting at a sold-out Kia Oval for Surrey. If we make that super easy for them then I think the numbers could be amazing.”