Who would have thought a 30-year-old story about a billionaire who died seven years ago could set the television ratings season alight?
The Nine Network’s two-part Howzat! series pulled in more than two million viewers on both Sunday nights it was broadcast: Indeed the chief complaint made this week from the wider media industry has been that the series could have collected even more advertising revenue if it had contained more episodes.
Howzat! is as much a business story – belonging to the burgeoning sub-genre of ‘tycoonography’ – as it is a tale of sporting endeavour. The show has revealed to a new generation the vaulting ambition of Packer’s grab for control of world cricket and the breathtaking risks he ran to eventually succeed.
At its best the story is motivational and offers perhaps six outstanding lessons to anyone in business...
1. If a gamble is worth taking, it’s worth taking big-time
The degree to which Packer put his newly-acquired family fortune on the line to secure victory in the conflict with the International Cricket Conference is dramatic. In an interview with Philip Cornford of The Australian in 1977, Packer revealed that he had $6 million on the line and even in a best-case scenario he would lose $2 million in the tournament’s first year. These were telephone numbers 35 years ago, especially when the first day of the first World Series game in Waverley Park, Melbourne attracted an estimated 200 people.
2. Disruptive technology is as powerful today as it was in 1977
Packer’s tilt at securing World Series cricket was primarily about television. Cricket in all three forms – test, day/night and 20/20 – remains a television rating powerhouse. In recent times even the Big Bash league – a nascent domestic 20/20 competition – has rivalled rugby league in the ratings.
Crucially, colour television was just taking off in the mid-Seventies when World Series cricket was launched. Meanwhile, Australian innovations such as close-up microphones and multiple camera angles hugely enhanced the television experience of the game.
3. Monopolies can be broken
Cricket author and business journalist Gideon Haigh, who was a script consultant on the series, says: "What really happened is that Packer went in and broke a long-standing cricket board monopoly… then he recreated it.” Haigh, who wrote the original The Cricket War in 1993, also says virtually every scene in the series rings true, including Packer letting in thousands of fans for free after the SCG was totally sold out in November 1978.
4. Every business leader has a team behind them
‘Surround yourself with people smarter than you’, goes the management mantra and the series highlights the circle of highly-paid and regularly berated executives surrounding Packer – including mentor Harry Chester, cricket doyen Richie Benaud, John Cornell who later produced the Crocodile Dundee movies and David Hill who later became an executive at sports marketing group IMG. Separately, the story also shows the power of a secret team strategy. Packer somehow got 35 young cricket stars to keep a secret for long enough to surprise the cricket establishment.
5. The courts can unlock business success
Packer’s overwhelming of the ICC was fundamentally achieved in the courts. Many businesses have deep pockets but few have played the legal system so adroitly. Packer financed almost seven weeks in the British High Court. When Justice Slade handed down a 211-page judgement hugely in favour of Packer there were legal bills of $320,000… but the bill had to be paid for by cricket boards around the world. This was the turning point for the series. All through the campaign Packer spent hugely on every aspect of his gamble. In Sydney he paid for the SCG to install floodlights. In London he hired England’s two most expensive QCs – Andrew Merrit and Robert Alexander – simply as an insurance; it was unheard of at the time to employ two silks.
6. Innovation and subversion run hand in hand
One of the most memorable scenes in the series is when a pin-striped Packer is flabbergasted when his favoured lieutenant, John Cornell, will not wear a tie. But Packer still knows the shrewd impresario should be left to his own devices. There's also Cornell deftly dropping Nine Network advertisers like Qantas in favour of saturation advertising for the World Series, or the commissioning of the MOJO creative team to write a song for the campaign …C’mon Aussie C’mon, which somehow got to number one in January 1979. It is these vignettes of business life at its most inventive and lucrative that made the series so compelling. It's what they don't teach you at business school, but they should.
*An earlier version of this story said Nine Network's David Hill later became chief executive of the ABC. This was incorrect. Another David Hill, who was a prominent administrator in soccer and rugby league, was boss of ABC. Nine Network's David Hill joined sports marketing group IMG.