Gambling the Family Jewels

Well everything is bright and rosy in the Garden of Eden that is England Cricket or that is what we have been told to believe by one of our beloved leaders, the vacuous ECB mouthpiece which is Tom Harrison. Dmitri did a brilliant job of deconstructing the various rubbish that the empty suit spewed in his various interviews over the past week, so I’m going to try and not go over old ground, instead I’m trying to fathom what this actually means for English cricket going forward.

Amongst all the corporate language and boring platitudes that were trotted out by Harrison, the most revealing comment was that “There’s a moment when we need to have a leap of faith, and I think we’re very close to that”. So in other words, it’s a case of sticking your finger in the air and hoping for the best, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the ECB’s strategic capabilities by any means. This is the equivalent of going all in on red at the casino table, hey you may be lucky and win the prize or it may come down on black and hence you lose everything – 130 years of county cricket down the drain because you went on a stupid hunch.

As for the competition itself, it more and more seems to be a bodge job with every day that passes. Surely if franchise cricket (or city based cricket, it’s the same thing to me) is what you believe in as the savior of English cricket then go the whole hog, replace the Blast with the new competition and start aggressively marketing it now – county opposition or not. The fact we will still have the T20 Blast in some form or another in an already busy calendar, which will now be viewed as an inferior competition and the fact that the new ‘Super T20 competition’ will take players away from the County Championship in the most important part of the season, thus making that an inferior product too doesn’t seem to make an awful amount of sense to me bearing in mind the investment needed.

The irony of all this is that the attendances at the Blast have been rising exponentially over the past years, certainly in the South of England, with a growth of 63% over the past four years. This might well be down to the fact that the majority of games are held on a Friday night and from experiences attending them myself, it does seem that a large make up of the audience tends to be younger males looking to throw down a number of beers in the sun before heading out for the evening (though quite why you would choose to consume Foster’s at £5.50 a pint in large quantities is beyond me); however the numbers don’t lie, the Blast has continued to see growth. Now I’m not saying the Blast is an ideal format, there are too many pointless games when qualification has all been assured or not, it is impossible to screen more than one game on TV, so broadcasters have to play lucky dip, hence we all got to miss out on Chris Gayle smashing a hundred at Taunton a couple of years ago and the competition lasts too long to get the top draw T20 players to attend. However, I think it would be fair to say that the cricketing world needs another T20 competition like a shark needs a bowler hat, quite simply it doesn’t. This is the crux of the matter, we have simply missed the boat as every Test playing nation has a T20 competition. What was new and innovative when the IPL came into place has become a dull, yearlong parade of mediocrity in the most part. If the ECB had been deadly serious about a new franchise competition as the only way to save English cricket, then it should have done it 5 years ago before all the other leagues started to pop up, not in 2020, when potentially everyone is sick of seeing Dwaine Bravo or Thisara Perera on their screens for 12 months solid and the format is already stale.

One of the most worrying things for me is the lack of market testing that the ECB has carried out. It is estimated that people will travel between 3-5 miles to attend a Blast game, how do they know that more people will travel to a South London Stags or a Manchester Moose’s game? That is obviously a rhetorical question, as quite obviously they don’t, no matter how much money is thrown at marketing the new competition. Then there is the case of actually alienating current fans. English cricket is fairly unique in it’s structure with so many first class teams and many fans are very tribal about the counties they support and rightly so (perhaps the exception is India, who have a large first class competition, but they struck while the iron was hot with the IPL), so how many of these fans are going to pay extra on top of what they already spend to go and see a team that they have absolutely no allegiance to? I couldn’t see myself getting particularly passionate about supporting a South London side and I guess many are in my boat too. Perhaps we’re not the ones that the ECB wants to get through the door, as the ECB is desperate to get kids involved as shown by the “Chance to Shine” programme, which in my opinion is simply a sticky plaster across an open wound. If the ECB is banking on attracting loads of families to attend the new competition as their main source of revenue, then it is a completely reckless gamble. Cricket has been out of the public eye since 2005, with only a select few that can either afford Sky or have family with a keen interest in the sport that have continued to follow the sport. Throwing a few plastic bats and kit at kids, when club cricket and interest in the game has continued to decline rapidly, is a bit like pissing into the wind. Sure the empty suit might think that Jonny Bairstow or Ben Stokes are the recognisable face of English cricket, but if I went to the average state primary school, with pictures of them, then I would bet 80% of the kids have no idea who they are. Cricket has been forgotten, it has become more elitist than ever and more importantly it no longer resonates with todays generation of kids. The ECB sold the future of English cricket down the river for a shed load of Sky’s cash, end of. It is welcoming to hear that the new competition will have some FTA access, but it is 12 years too late. Sure, you might well get some new younger converts, but how many will shrug there shoulders wondering what this weird game is?

Then of course, we come to the money aspect and that is where Mr. Empty Suit, feels he is best qualified, after all he was heavily involved in the sale of rights to Sky in the first place. Harrison is banking on the fact that they can get enough spin going around the new competition to get £35 million from either Sky or BT and he may well be right, after all, there is history of bidding wars between the two organisations; however even if they bank the TV money, they are still projected to lose £15million in the first year. Now I might not be an economist, but if went to my boss with an idea that was going to lose £15million in the first year, then I’d get laughed out of the room, yet this is the flagship competition that is going to save English cricket? I simply can’t reconcile both the figures and the risk here to make it a going concern.

Perhaps a more sensible suggestion would be to take that £15million and properly market the Blast, reduce some of the ticket prices to make them family attractive and use some of that money to take some of the games off Sky and onto an FTA platform. Sure the Blast could do with a bit of a revamp, as with any product that is 15 years old (2 or 3 divisions perhaps as a starter for 10), but it simply shouldn’t be ignored that it is only part of English cricket that isn’t in decline.

Surely it’s better that than recklessly gambling the future of county cricket on a hunch? Unfortunately logic has famously never been something that influences the corridors of power at the ECB. All in on red please.