AS CHANNEL Nine celebrates its cricket history with a mini-series about Kerry Packer, bitter rival Channel Seven has emerged as a serious threat for cricket's broadcast rights.
Channel Seven sources say it has met Cricket Australia at least a dozen times in the past year, discussing buying one or all of the free-to-air rights to the three formats - Tests, one-day internationals and international and domestic Twenty20 cricket.
It has also emerged that Channel Ten is interested, with one executive declaring the network wanted to again have ''big-time sport'' after losing the AFL rights.
Cricket Australia's seven-year deal with Nine runs until March. That deal was worth between $315 million and $350 million, but the return could double this time, in part due to the success of Twenty20.
Seven and Ten have yet to lodge a formal offer because Cricket Australia has yet to specify how it wants to carve up the rights, but the networks say talks will intensify from November. Seven West Media has debts of $1.44 billion but insists it has the money to buy premium sporting content.
Seven has discussed several scenarios with Cricket Australia, and is particularly excited that the first year of any deal would be an Ashes summer.
It also is interested in night Tests.
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland and head of media rights Stephanie Beltrame have made it clear they are open for business.
Nine has always had the exclusive rights to the three forms of the game, but any new deal may see up to three networks handling the different formats.
''The AFL is split over two channels, why not cricket?'' one executive said.
Channel Ten chief executive James Warburton has met Cricket Australia, while Fox Sports, which cannot bid locally for the international rights, wants to retain its hold on the domestic Twenty20 Big Bash. The Big Bash could also be split between pay TV and free-to-air television.
Nine is determined to retain the rights but has major debt issues. It needs to refinance $2.8 billion in debt by February.
A Seven source said: ''This has been a closed negotiation for more than 30 years. The relationship with Seven and CA has probably never been as active.
''We have so much regular contact. These rights will be negotiated over the Christmas- New Year period because of contractual windows with Nine.
''There has never been a time where another network has genuinely put in a bid since Kerry Packer revolutionised cricket.''
Mr Packer won the rights in 1979 when peace was declared between the cricket establishment and his breakaway World Series Cricket.
The Big Bash has emerged as a lucrative component of discussions after its average television viewing audience per game last season rose 82 per cent, from 155,000 to 282,000.
CA is also negotiating new broadcast deals in Asia, North America and England.