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Australian cricketers’ pay dispute: will lightning strike twice in the same place?

Leading Australian cricketers have indicated they may boycott forthcoming tournaments if no pay deal is reached. AAP/David Mariuz

Australian cricketers’ pay dispute: will lightning strike twice in the same place?

Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers’ Association (ACA) are at loggerheads over the negotiation of pay and working conditions.

If a new memorandum of understanding cannot be reached by July 1, Cricket Australia has threatened to not pay players. The union and leading players have indicated they may boycott forthcoming tournaments, including this summer’s Ashes series, if no agreement is reached.

Sport, like other areas of economic life, requires decisions to be made about pay and working conditions. Especially in recent decades, sport has witnessed the formation of associations to represent players, and the use of collective bargaining to resolve such issues.

There are times, however, when the parties experience difficulties in reaching an agreement.

Not unique to cricket

In the US, Major League Baseball had a 232-day strike in 1994. The National Football League had a 127-day lockout in 2011. The National Basketball Association had lockouts of 204 and 161 days, respectively, in 1998-99 and 2011. And the National Hockey League had lockouts of 301 and 119 days, respectively, in 2004-05 and 2012-13.

Other examples of actual and threatened industrial disputes can be found in numerous sports across the globe.

In 2015, the Australian women’s national football team, the Matildas, refused to tour the US over the level and late payment of wages. This is the only example of a strike in Australian sport.

There are several other examples of Australian players threatening strike action: the most recent involved netballers concerned over governance of their sport.

Lessons of the past

Australian cricket has also experienced its fair share of industrial drama over the years.

Between 1908 and 1909 there was a major clash when administrators wrested control of tours away from players.

In 1977, the creation of World Series Cricket involved media mogul Kerry Packer signing leading players to “lucrative” annual contracts ranging from A$16,500 to $35,000. The then-Australian Cricket Board (ACB) had not contracted players and paid them “low” levels of income (from $180 to $2,000 for home Test matches from 1970 to 1977).

The dispute was essentially over Packer’s attempt to broadcast cricket – the rights had long been in the hands of the national broadcaster, the ABC. The dispute was resolved in 1979 when the ACB accepted a more lucrative offer from Packer.

In 1995, the Australian Cricketers’ Association formed and experienced difficulties gaining recognition from the ACB. The ACB sought to bypass it by conducting meetings with players or writing to them individually.

Players, especially those in the Test team, steadfastly stood behind the ACA. They maintained they lacked knowledge concerning the business side of sport and needed their union’s professional expertise to represent them on such matters and broader, collective issues associated with player welfare.

The ACB sought to paint the Test players as “greedy”, only concerned with themselves. These players responded that they wished to enhance the income and security of state players, provide them with an incentive to stay in the game, and ensure a ready supply of hardened professionals to maintain the supremacy of Australian cricket.

The players threatened to strike in a one-day game. The ACB ultimately agreed to recognise the ACA and, in 1998, negotiated the first of several pay deals – all of which have been based on revenue-sharing.

Unpicking this dispute

The 2012-17 deal provided cricketers with a 24.5% to 27% share of revenue (depending on playing success). Other Australian athletes receive shares of revenue ranging from 25% (rugby league), to the high 20s (AFL, likely, given current negotiations), and low 30s (rugby union and football).

In the US, athletes receive approximately a 50% share. Footballers in Europe get somewhere between 60% and 70%.

The 2017 cricket dispute looks like a re-run of the dispute in the 1990s. Cricket Australia is bypassing the ACA by contacting players directly, with the players again standing behind the ACA. CA is seeking to treat state players differently from Test and contracted players by offering them one-off payments, rather than linking their payments to revenue, which the ACA hopes to maintain.

A major difference from back then is the inclusion of female players. From July 1, Cricket Australia has offered payments of $179,000 for the Southern Stars, the national women’s team, and $52,000 for state players. The Southern Stars would be the highest-paid female team players in Australia.

The ACA, in offering what it regards as an olive branch, has lowered its request for a players’ share to 22.5% – including female players. Cricket Australia has not taken up this concession: it wants to negotiate with players individually and rejects revenue-sharing.

Recent decades have seen the rise of Indian cricket and Twenty20 cricket globally, with offers in the millions of dollars for leading players. This differs markedly from the 1990s. If the current dispute is not settled, players could conceivably earn an income from such tournaments – or new entrepreneurs may find a willing workforce prepared to embark on new competitions.

There are other sports looking for a chance to find their place in the Australian broadcasting sun, such as football and burgeoning women’s sports. It remains to be seen whether a new deal can be struck like a four to the boundary, or what will happen if negotiations continue to go through to the ‘keeper.

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