It has been rumbling on for some time, stories here and there in the press suggesting that negotiations regarding pay in a sporting context were going to come to a head and potentially turn into an ugly dispute.  It is not unusual to see such stories in sport, particularly given the salaries some sports stars can command and the high commercial stakes involved.

However, those who think of cricket as a genteel, sepia-tinged world may be surprised that it is Australian cricket currently embroiled in this story.  Cricket Australia (CA) is the governing body of cricket in Australia and effectively employs around 200 professional cricketers in the country, including the international stars like Steve Smith, David Warner and Mitchell Starc… or at least did employ…

Every five years, CA negotiates a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with the Australian Cricketers’ Association (ACA), a representative body for the players. This MoU effectively acts as an employment contract and, importantly, sets out the provisions for how those professional cricketers in Australia under the MoU will be paid.

The main point in dispute is the payment model.  For 20 years, male players have received a share of the revenue generated by Australian cricket in addition to their annual retainer/salary.  CA argue that this model is unsustainable and that the revenue money should be redirected towards supporting the grass-roots of cricket in Australia.  So instead, they offered an increase to the fixed income for the domestic players, with no revenue share, and a smaller profit share arrangement for the international players in addition to their fixed income.

ACA has so far refused that offer, as the players want the revenue-share model to be retained for all of the players.  Their argument is that the domestic players should be entitled to the same arrangement that they have had for 20 years, and not be treated differently to the international players.

The trouble is that the negotiations have remained in deadlock for so long that the previous MoU expired on 30 June and there is not yet another one to replace it.  The upshot is that most of the professional cricketers of Australia are no longer ‘employed’ by their governing body, save that the international women’s side will be paid up to the end of the current Women’s World Cup being played in England.

This leaves the players with the decision of what to do now. Thus far, there has been a strong front of solidarity from the players, with the international stars backing the ACA even though the CA’s pay arrangement offer looks to leave them better off than before.  David Warner, usually known for attacking the bowling, suggested back in May that Australian cricketers may need to find cricket elsewhere, i.e. taking up contracts in Twenty/20 leagues around the world, and that there may not even be a team for the Ashes come the scheduled 2017/2018 series.

With the issue seemingly critical, you might expect certain compromises to be made in order to reach agreement. Well, to an extent that occurred, as CA offered a revised pay arrangement which did include a revenue/profit share of sorts for all players.  However, “one hand giveth” comes to mind, as CA also told players that they would face bans of up to 6 months if taking part in unsanctioned matches.  Further, it does not look like pay will be backdated if an agreement is reached, as the money not paid to players due to the impasse will go to the grass-roots as was the intention behind the offer in the first place.  While the latter is fine from a legal viewpoint, the former may not work.  The players are not currently employed by CA and so what legal basis does CA have for potentially punishing players for their actions during such a period when (or if!) the players are employed again?  The employment lawyer in me is thinking of unenforceable restrictions and restraint of trade.

In any event, will the players budge? At the moment, no. The tour of South Africa by the Australian A side (the 2nd team) has been called off, so it is not just hot air from the ACA and the players.

The current status quo can clearly not last, as Australia cannot currently meet its international cricketing obligations without teams of players who are willing to play and the players are not getting paid, unless they take up contracts to play elsewhere.  Elsewhere sponsors have been looking to capitalise on the situation by proposing deals with individuals who not previously be able to enter into them due to conflicts with CA’s existing sponsors.

While the Ashes series is still some months away, this dispute has already dragged on for months and the battle for the little urn could be seriously affected, if not cancelled altogether.  As much as England fans would love an Ashes series against a scratch team cobbled together from Aussies who hold the wrong end of the bat and bowl underarm, the magic of the Ashes might just be diluted, even in the event of a monumental whitewash victory for England.

Further movement from one or both sides will inevitably happen and the cricket world would hope it happens soon.