Even the most die-hard county cricket fan, weathered by years of damp English summers and memories of the national team’s abject performances in the 1990s, can admit that English domestic cricket is not in the best shape. It has been reported that the debts of the 18 county cricket sides total over £150 million ($193 million) and nearly all of them are reliant on subsidies to the tune of over £1 million a year from the England and Wales Cricket Board.
On top of these financial woes, over the last 10 years, English cricket has also arguably drifted out of public consciousness despite a period of great success for the men’s national side. The 2005 Ashes series against Australia, the first time the English cricket team won the Ashes in over 20 years, can be said to be the most recent time cricket had a nationwide reference point, as it was the last series that was broadcast live on free-to-air television in the UK.
Over 8 million people watched the 2005 Ashes at its peak, compared to a peak of 1.9 million during the 2009 Ashes series and 1.3 million in 2013, both shown exclusively live by pay-television's Sky. Over this period of time, cricket participation has dropped dramatically. In 2008-09, 428,000 people played cricket at least once a month in England. That number had dropped to 278,600 for 2015-16, a fall of 35 per cent.
In 2017, the 18 first-class counties, along with the minor counties, voted in favour of creating a new eight-team Twenty20 franchise league to start in 2020, proposed by the ECB. The aim of the new tournament, modelled on other global T20 tournaments, in particular Australia’s Big Bash League, is to boost participation and the profile of the game to a new younger audience, and improve the finances of domestic cricket.
However, the new format, combined with an existing tournament that has created its own niche, arguably poses more questions than it answers for English cricket.
Breaking the pay wall
The ECB plans to use the new T20 tournament to bring cricket back into the national conversation, and increase television viewing figures, as well as attendances. To do so, Tom Harrison, chief executive of the ECB, has said that the tournament will be partly shown on free-to-air TV. Harrison said that the ECB is looking to find “the right balance of reach, revenue and exposure” for cricket in the UK, with the new T20 tournament playing a key role in this aim.
This is regarded as heartening stuff for many English cricket fans, although free-to-air TV exposure for the new English tournament will still be limited to just eight games out of 36. Unquestionably, the viewership of these eight televised games is set to be dramatically higher than for the games on pay-TV: commercial broadcaster Channel Five’s highlights of English test cricket is regularly viewed by over 1 million people, five times the viewing figures of some T20 Blast games shown by Sky.
Will Brown, chief executive of Gloucestershire County Cricket Club, told Sportcal that this group of fixtures would “be enough” to spark interest from the general public, and that internet broadcasts and highlights would be equally important to the competition’s success. This split free-to-air/pay-TV tactic will also mean the ECB will gain financially from broadcasters in the short term.
However, it remains to be seen if this short-term gain will translate into long-term increases in media revenue. It could be argued that eight games might not have the desired effect of boosting the new tournament’s popularity, as fans watching exclusively on free-to-air will be unable to contextualise the entire tournament.
Cricket is a complex sport by its very nature: for new fans to truly understand it, it needs this context, according to this argument, and it needs regular exposure. Yet Brown was adamant that the new tournament “just wouldn’t work, financially” without pay-TV.
In contrast to the plans for the new English T20 tournament, the BBL has been broadcast on free-to-air TV in full for the last four editions. This decision by Cricket Australia to sacrifice potential income from pay-TV broadcasters to reach a broader audience has led to the BBL generating the largest average viewership of any sporting event in Australia, experiencing 40-per-cent growth between 2013-14 and 2016-17.
Cricket Australia is set to cash in on this popularity in its next rights cycle: it is predicted that the governing body will be able to command A$60 million ($45.3 million) in media rights annually for the BBL, three times the amount that free-to-air broadcaster Ten Network pays for the rights currently. Both free-to-air and pay-TV broadcasters are set to bid for these rights. If the BBL goes behind a pay-wall, how popular it remains will be a litmus test for the new English tournament.
A lack of exposure for the new English tournament in the first place could mean that it runs the risk of not capturing the public’s imagination like the BBL, making it a less attractive property further down the line to broadcasters, and therefore less commercially successful.
You can build it, but will the fans take to it?
The ECB now has to address the challenge that faced Australian and Indian cricket previously: how to build an audience for a new T20 tournament.
The blank canvas of a new tournament should allow the ECB to tailor the tournament to a younger audience with the aim of avoiding a lost generation of English cricket fans. The BBL has been very successful in attracting younger fans, with attendances doubling since its first edition in 2011-12. Furthermore, the BBL has arguably succeeded in making cricket 'cool for a new generation: over the same time period, cricket participation rates have increased from 880,000 in 2011-12 to over 1.3 million in 2016-17, boosted greatly by youth participation figures.
The fresh start of a new tournament could also enable the creation of teams that are not tainted by the clichés surrounding county cricket: that it is only popular with an older, male audience. The ECB has made the decision to market the tournament centrally instead of relying on cash-strapped counties to do the job, which should allow this message to be broadcast more ambitiously and more effectively nationwide than the T20 Blast has been. Centralised marketing could offer the new tournament a greater opportunity to create a stronger brand for itself with consistent messaging to fans nationwide.
These advantages do, however, come with caveats. The ECB has gone to great lengths to stress that this new tournament is targeted at new cricket fans, with Brown explaining that it has been designed specifically to “introduce new people to the game” and adding that “the new tournament is not necessarily for core cricket fans.” So, what if current cricket fans do not take to it?
Everything about the new tournament distances itself from the current county teams: the eight new teams will have new names and will be staffed by players from around the country, not from each team’s locality. In doing so, the ECB has decided to ignore the tribalism that exists in English cricket, English sport and English society in general.
This lack of tribalism in the new tournament would not be hindrance if the stereotype that county cricket is watched by one man and his dog is applied. But this could not be further from the truth. The NatWest T20 Blast continues to grow despite a lack of centralised marketing. The tournament’s overall attendance peaked at over 800,000 in 2015, with Surrey regularly attracting over 20,000 people to its games.
Furthermore, over 5 million people listened to online commentary on the first four rounds of the County Championship, the multi-day, first-class cricket competition in England and Wales. No matter how much the ECB markets to new fans, existing cricket fans will have to be persuaded to become loyal to one of the eight new regional franchises to make it viable.
The ECB will not only have to give each cricket fan a reason to support a brand-new team, but fans will have to travel further for the privilege, given that the eight teams will be primarily city-based. Cricket has remained more popular in rural England: the new English T20 format will reduce the number of games played at the relatively small county towns of Essex, Kent and Somerset, which have regularly been able to attract sell-out crowds. In contrast, Warwickshire and Glamorgan, based in Birmingham and Cardiff respectively, have experienced lower levels of ticket sale growth for the T20 Blast than rural areas of the country.
The naming of these teams will also play a role in their popularity, with other sporting rivalries having an influence. Brown said that some people might consider “city-based teams as appealing” and “easier to market”, but “if you are a kid in Exeter, would you primarily support a team called Bristol or one that represents the South West peninsula?”
Will Brown, chief executive, Gloucestershire CCC
Brown continued: “With new participation initiatives from the ECB such as All Stars Cricket [a participation scheme aimed at five to eight year olds], it’s really important that the professional game has as much geographical reach as possible to ensure the link between development and elite cricket is as strong as it can be. To do this I believe you need a really vibrant domestic county cricket scene (including the Natwest T20 Blast) as well as a new T20 tournament which appeals on a regional basis. Otherwise there is a risk you could exclude as many people as you include.”
However, if this is such a big issue, why has a decision been made to cut down the number of teams in the premier T20 competition from 18 to just eight, risking making it less accessible for children to watch it live? Cricket, like many other sports in the UK, has a problem with keeping children aged from eight to 14 in the sport, and it could be argued that making top-quality T20 cricket harder to watch risks exacerbating this talent drain.
Cricket Australia did not have to confront the issue of building an audience from such a low base, and it did not have to compete against a functioning pre-existing tournament. Moreover, the BBL was essentially a competition with state teams rebranded into city names, thus providing some form of tribalism from existing cricket fans. Australia’s five major cities contain approximately 65 per cent of the population, which makes the BBL accessible and relatable to the majority of Australians, something the new English T20 competition cannot achieve as England’s population is far more spread out across rural and urban areas.
Much as in soccer's English Premier League, broadcast revenue appears to be the driving force in the creation of the new English T20 tournament. The new tournament could be worth £40 million a year in broadcast revenue to the ECB, according to some reports, with pay-TV's Sky, BT Sport and Discovery and the free-to-air BBC showing interest in the rights. Nearly every county will benefit from an increase in cash flow because of this: as part of the creation of the tournament, the ECB has promised each team a minimum of £1.3 million a year for the first five years of the tournament.
Despite the promise of a media and sponsorship revenue boost, there remain serious doubts over how best to monetise T20 competitions in general. A decade after its creation, some teams in the Indian Premier League (recognised as the gold standard for a T20 competition) continue to lose money, and it has also been revealed that the BBL has lost A$33 million over its first five years.
Part of this is attributed to the decision to broadcast the tournament on free-to-air TV, with the losses coming despite the competition attracting and retaining sponsors such as Warner Brothers and Optus and some BBL teams generating reported sponsorship revenues of over A$1.5 million.
At the recent launch of the T20 Global League, the new South African franchise T20 competition scheduled to start in late 2017, Osman Osman, the owner of the Pretoria-based team, insisted that the new franchise had undertaken “extensive planning” to prepare for a loss, but said that his priority was building a brand identity for the team.
Some reports have suggested that the new English tournament could lose up to £15 million in its first year alone. How long it might take the tournament to become profitable depends on the levels of media revenues attained, but a £15-million loss would represent a near halving of the ECB’s current level of cash reserves, and continuing losses risk crippling the English game.
A further question remains as to how this tournament will enable the counties to be run financially independently from the ECB. Brown said that he foresees “nothing but good commercially” for Gloucestershire, as long as the T20 Blast remains in its current format and its revenues are not harmed. Brown described the Blast as “hugely successful” for Gloucestershire, and said that the ECB and the counties aim to maintain and even increase the poularity of the competition over the next three years.
However, it is thought highly unlikely that the T20 Blast will maintain its stature, inevitably losing out to the new T20 competition in both playing standards and marketing budget. It will also be played outside the school summer holidays, the time when crowds are highest and the weather is best, leading Brown to express concerns over how the club can continue to appeal to sponsors, especially if the T20 Blast gets downgraded in either popularity or number of games.
So how will the counties continue to generate independent streams of income? Arguably, they are already reliant on the ECB for their very existence, with each one receiving over £1 million a year from the governing body, and some continuing to make annual losses despite this investment.
This competition risks making them even more beholden to the ECB, potentially leading to a situation where the governing body might have to make a decision on whether to allow them to survive or not. If this situation arises and the ECB chooses not to support a club that might no longer be financially viable (a possibility considering the arguably harsh treatment of Durham when it entered administration), the counties would have voted for a tournament that led to their own extinction.
Give the Blast the opportunity to succeed
Most English cricket fans are hoping that the T20 competition works. If it has the same impact as the IPL and the BBL, it could help to revolutionise English domestic cricket. If it does not, the future of county cricket could be in jeopardy. But does English cricket really need this radical overhaul to achieve a successful future?
The T20 Blast does not fit the mould of other leagues. Its fixtures are not played in a short block, it has more than twice the number of teams that other leagues do and it has its semi-finals and finals on the same day. Despite these differences, and despite limited media exposure and centralised marketing, plus constant tinkering with its format, the T20 Blast continues to grow in popularity, .
Six format changes in seven years have limited the T20 Blast's ability to create a regular viewing pattern with its audience, yet the average T20 Blast attendance figure increased by 29 per cent between 2010 and 2016. Average audiences peaked in 2013, a year in which the tournament did not clash with either a Fifa World Cup or an Olympic Games. Overall attendance figures peaked in 2015 at 827,654, a 22-per-cent increase on 2010 (676,753) despite playing 13 fewer games.
The question the ECB has failed to answer during the commissioning of the new tournament is why not give the T20 Blast the media exposure it seemingly deserves, and market it to as wide an audience as possible? Why not be prepared to invest the £15 million that the new competition stands to lose in its first year into a competition that can capture the public’s imagination and could help English cricket’s domestic teams flourish independently?