The ECB: What is it Good For (Say it again)?

The Board and management team have considered the short and long-term goals of the business in order to support and grow the grassroots game while continuing to strive for success at the elite level with our 24 England teams.

Mission statements can be little more than a sop to marketing necessity, and often bear little relation to what is actually happening in a given sport. Put simply, the role of any organisation that is accredited as the supreme authority for a sport is to act as the guardian of the game, both in the present and the future, in order to ensure it is in good shape for future generations. To that end, the short paragraph above encapsulates rather well what a governing body should strive to achieve, particularly in a commercial world where obtaining financial support for the elite level is an exceptionally important part of what they must do.

The trouble is, this one belongs to the FA.

The ECB does have an equivalent, called Cricket Unleashed, that has five “central pillars” to their intentions. Somewhat ironically, the link defines itself as being in the Men’s section of the ECB’s website, which is both unfortunate and wryly amusing given that when someone tells them they’ll be aghast. The strategy makes interesting reading both in terms of the in depth objectives and the broader aims behind it, particularly when measured against what is actually going on:

More Play

The ECB will make the game more accessible and inspire the next generation of players, coaches, officials and volunteers, with a particular focus on families and the young.

Great Teams

The ECB will deliver winning men’s and women’s teams across the international and domestic spectrum that inspire and excite fans through on-field performance and their connection with the public on and off the field.

Inspired Fans

The fan will be at the heart of our game, our thinking and our events, to improve and personalise the cricket experience for all.

Good Governance & Social Responsibility

The ECB will make decisions in the best interests of the game and use the power of cricket to make a positive difference to communities around England and Wales. Protecting the integrity of our sport is critical and we will ensure we have the right governance and processes to achieve that.

Strong Finance & Operations

The ECB will increase the game’s revenues, invest our resources wisely and administer them responsibly to secure the growth of the game.

So far so good. For if a little PR orientated, it provides a benchmark against which the ECB can and should be measured in terms of their own performance and their aspirations. It can’t be denied that as a set of principles, it’s not too bad. There are clearly some clauses inserted to ensure that no one can possibly point out a gap, but that is the modern world, and no bad thing provided that is adhered to, even in part. The question is whether they do, or in some instances whether they even try.

More Play

The ECB will make the game more accessible and inspire the next generation of players, coaches, officials and volunteers, with a particular focus on families and the young.

It’s always been said that the trick of public relations is to get the big lie out of the way in the headline or title – the German Democratic Republic, the Department of Trade and Industry are two examples. Certainly “More Play” would be a positive, yet all the evidence points in the other direction. The ECB have stopped publishing detailed information on participation levels in England and Wales, presumably because they kept showing disastrous falls. One clever wheeze was to start combining the figures of both men and women, which given the rise of female cricket (and here, it must be acknowledged that the ECB have done well, and much as it might grate, perhaps the biggest advocate for it was the otherwise Odious Giles Clarke) has successfully masked to some extent the catastrophic collapse in male participation. Most figures go as far as 2016 so it is always possible that the last two years have seen the trend reversed, however unlikely. Snapshots may have different methodologies, so can’t be compared with the most comprehensive survey available over the last decade, which demonstrated a fall in the numbers of active participants of a quite horrifying 35%. The decline amongst youth players isn’t remotely as marked, but few sports are faced with such a collapse in interest and participation as cricket over that period.

Sport England’s Active People Survey shows a similar level of decline over the same period, albeit with different numbers, also demonstrating that some sports have performed well, and others badly. Cricket is unquestionably one of those that have performed badly, even more so given the rise in women playing to complicate the overall picture. Yet if the figure of just under 2 million women playing football once a week is accurate, then it amounts to approximately seven times as many women playing football as men playing cricket. That can be claimed to be a huge success for women’s sport (and is) but it also highlights rather acutely the problem cricket has, particularly when a fall from just under half a million cricketers to just over a quarter of a million is taken into account. Of course, that doesn’t mean for a second that growing the game shouldn’t be an aspiration, just the opposite, but the record of the ECB in the 21st century hasn’t been a good one, and the removal of cricket from free to air television does coincide with the fall in playing numbers. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, yet it is hard not to draw conclusions from the way the game has struggled for interest at the same time as it was removed from public sight. There is far too much corroboratory evidence to contradict the view that cricket, once one of the three major team sports in the country, is now a minority pursuit in every sense.

Within the body of the clause is a desire to make the game more accessible, and a particular focus on families and the young. This is part of the justification for the Hundred, and indeed reflects a lot of the statements made by various ECB officials in its support. The ECB’s own market research has indicated the cricket simply isn’t on the radar of children, with no recognition either of the game or the key players in the national team. The trouble here is that simply saying this is what it is all for, no matter how clumsily (“mums and kids”) doesn’t mean for a second that the aspiration becomes reality. The social media response to the endless variations on rules and playing conditions has been negative, which doesn’t mean that there is no merit behind any of them per se (nor that social media is representative of anything), but the whole intention behind Cricket Unleashed takes on a rather different hue when allied to the constant refrain that it isn’t aimed at existing cricket fans.

Accessibility can also be inferred to be a reference to cricket on free to air television, and if the omnishambles behind the Hundred to date has any saving grace whatever, it is the tacit admission by the ECB that hiding the game behind a paywall has been hugely damaging. It is vanishingly unlikely that anyone in authority will ever admit that, but the selling the Hundred rights for a relative song to the BBC (and that specific desire that it be the BBC) show that actions speak louder than words.

The trouble is that this particular aspiration collides headlong with many of the others, and that’s where the trouble begins. It is indicative of the mess the ECB have got into that the five pillars are tending towards the mutually exclusive. They needn’t have been.

Great Teams

The ECB will deliver winning men’s and women’s teams across the international and domestic spectrum that inspire and excite fans through on-field performance and their connection with the public on and off the field.

Of course. Wouldn’t anyone want that? Yet despite the statements from the ECB that Test cricket is their priority, this statement is suitably vague in terms of what it might actually mean. They could certainly argue that they are delivering on success in white ball cricket, both male and female, but it provides a nice free pass for the areas that aren’t going so well. It also places a lot of importance on the World Cup next year, and England’s hopes of winning it. A bad World Cup would seriously call into question the entire strategy on its own merits, let alone from the perspective of the Test game. Equally, the reference to domestic cricket being “inspiring and exciting” could be held to be indicating a white ball focus rather than red. The continued marginalisation of the County Championship certainly implies as much, and in the short term at least, the call up of players to the Test team who aren’t even playing red ball cricket for the counties is not a matter of protest so much as an obvious concomitant of the ECB’s own strategy.

The addition of a fourth limited overs domestic competition at the same time as reducing the importance of the County Championship (how else can its being shunted to April, May and September be viewed?) indicates plainly where the priorities lie. At the same time, they have financial imperatives that strongly point to what they are doing now, but ones that are on shaky ground in future given the fall in interest in cricket in the first place – if cricket loses interest, those TV rights become much less valuable. Hence the need for the Hundred, which may increase awareness of the game without directly impacting on the existing domestic and international finances.

Inspired Fans

The fan will be at the heart of our game, our thinking and our events, to improve and personalise the cricket experience for all.

This perhaps of all the five pillars of ECB wisdom will have the cricket supporter chuckling away most. The ever increasing ticket prices alone are hardly an indication of the fan being at the heart of anything other than the ECB’s wallet. To be fair to them, at least on this occasion they managed to include cricket fans in their list of stakeholders rather than ignoring them entirely, but nothing highlights the lack of trust in the organisation more than that even those not overtly critical of the ECB strategy will find this particular clause something of a joke.

It’s not even just the obvious issues that vex many a sporting fan (said ticket prices, food and drink costs, stadium access and so forth), it is also that the cricketing schedule is a mess to the point that fixtures are arranged with no thought whatever for the spectator. Bank Holidays empty of cricket, four day matches with no consistency on start date nor even falling over weekends, even entire swathes of the summer with no cricket in some formats at home grounds.

Naturally, paying lip service to supporters is a common complaint in all sports, but cricket has a particular problem in that the people who have supported the game over a long time are very often the same people who volunteer at clubs or schools to try to promote the sport itself. Treating traditional cricket spectators with contempt has a far greater impact on the game than is the case in previously comparable sports simply because there’s neither depth nor competition for attendance.

Of course, for T20 in particular, crowds have been strong, and some counties such as Surrey have invested heavily in a procedure known as “marketing”, to the point that they have demonstrated consistently high crowds, despite not having the assistance of the Hundred to do so. This might be thought to be worthy of credit, yet the silence from the ECB on this subject has been deafening. Of course, the whole tournament is restricted to Sky subscribers in the first place, and the unwillingness of either the ECB, the counties or both to countenance a drop in income is precisely why an additional tournament has been deemed necessary.

However, the nature of the crowds attending is rather open to debate. T20 cricket is neatly packaged into three hours (this has stretched somewhat – at the beginning it was two and a half, while the IPL has suffered from some games going as long as four hours), and attracts the casual spectator. This ought to be a good thing, for the shortest version of the game – so far – can and should be a gateway to developing an interest in cricket. However there are anecdotal complaints that people attend for a night out rather than game itself, which still isn’t a problem, for it provides much needed revenues from the bars. What is a contradiction is that the ECB have promoted the upcoming Hundred as being a family affair, while repeatedly stating it isn’t aimed at existing cricket fans.

They have a problem here: firstly in that no one has any idea where these prospective fans will be coming from, and secondly the often raucous atmosphere of a T20 is hardly conducive to being a family affair. It is impossible to believe that they will restrict the sale of alcohol for a start, meaning that without a currently entirely invisible to cricket demographic flocking to grounds, the chances are that it will simply replicate existing audiences, at best.

Good Governance & Social Responsibility

The ECB will make decisions in the best interests of the game and use the power of cricket to make a positive difference to communities around England and Wales. Protecting the integrity of our sport is critical and we will ensure we have the right governance and processes to achieve that.

The opening line of this clause is in some ways the most controversial statement of the lot, even more so than the one about fans. For it is beyond question that this should be the primary role of a governing body, the question is whether it actually is.

Is it truly in the best interests of the game to marginalise red ball cricket? Is it truly in the interests of the game to weaken the Test side (for there can be little argument that this is the effect)? Was it truly in the best interests of the game to oversee a sport that has become invisible and that participation has plummeted?

No one has ever said balancing the needs of a sport is easy, and certainly the ECB’s equivalents are subject to plenty of criticism. Yet even an organisation as institutionally controversial as FIFA could argue that they have significantly grown the sport around the world. The ECB can’t even arrest the decline of theirs in England and might well be directly responsible for it. Over the last 20 years or so there have been repeated opportunities to take decisions that were in the interests of the wider game, yet time and again the perception (at the very least) is that this has not been the motivation.

The creation of the Hundred is entirely at odds with the statement that “protecting the integrity of the sport is critical”, as more and more outlandish ideas are bandied around in order to provide a differentiation for what is already there. Whatever the length of a game, the fundamentals of the game of cricket remain. Considering abolishing the lbw law (as they were reported to have done) drives a coach and horses through the very idea that the integrity of the game is sacrosanct. It isn’t going to happen of course, but the very fact that it was even up for consideration is highly indicative that anything, including the game of cricket itself is very much up for grabs when commercial desires apply. Too many people have made the observation that the ECB is the only sporting body to hate its own sport for it to be given the benefit of any doubt. All of which leads to:

Strong Finance & Operations

The ECB will increase the game’s revenues, invest our resources wisely and administer them responsibly to secure the growth of the game.

This is one area the ECB can (and do. Oh my word, they really do) point to success. The move behind a paywall has seen the revenues rise consistently over the last 15 years, albeit some years are better than others. But there appears to be little scope for significant growth as things currently stand, without something such as the Hundred, and that relies on it being a success.

There is a central question here which the ECB have never been able to plausibly dismiss, which is whether the purpose of the money is to support the game, or whether the game is there to generate money. The former should be the sole focus of any governing body – the suspicion is that the latter is specifically what drives the ECB.

What is the money actually for? It is highly questionable whether the revenues have reached the recreational game for one thing – indeed many clubs might not notice much difference were the ECB to disappear entirely, such is the distance of the relationship between them. The clubs themselves have no say whatever over anything the ECB do. In contrast to the FA, where elections occur at every level of the pyramid, the ECB appoint someone to be a voice of the club and village game, with no reference whatever to it.

Likewise, although there are initiatives such as Chance to Shine and All Stars Cricket, much of the funding comes from elsewhere, and most of the work is done by club volunteers. Indeed, in the latter case the degree of subsidy is rather open to question, in terms of whether there is much if any at all. It should always be noted that the various England youth sides are included in the grassroots funding of the game. They are worthy recipients of money, naturally, but grassroots? No.

How well they operate as initiatives is a more open question. Chance to Shine appears to have performed well, in at least trying to stem the losses in interest and participation (sometimes success is measured in managing decline), but All Stars Cricket has had a mixed reception, and it is impossible to know whether the claimed figures represent a genuine uplift in junior interest, or whether it is largely those likely to be involved anyway measured twice.

The county game of course relies in large part on the TV deals done and the subsidy derived from the ECB themselves. Counties haven’t been self-sufficient for much of their histories, but the justification has always been that they are the proving ground and development centres for the international teams. As the ECB imperils the Test team by their strategy, that justification becomes just a little weaker.

Equally, those desiring terrestrial TV coverage, whether of county or international cricket are constantly met with the response that the drop in funding would damage the county game. At this point, the difficult question needs to be put: So what?

All businesses cut their cloth according to their income, the idea that counties would not be able to cope with a drop in subsidy implies that they are unable to run their basic affairs. Football teams cope with relegation, because they address the cost base to reflect the income differential. To suggest that county cricket is the sole industry totally unable to handle this is to say that it is akin to a heroin addict unable to function without their latest fix. It certainly would be difficult, it certainly would involve job losses, and it certainly wouldn’t please players who saw their income level drop. But it could and would survive, unless those who are running cricket are entirely incompetent.

This is why the central question of what that desire for ever increasing revenue remains to ask what it is for. It doesn’t remotely appear to be for the betterment of the game of cricket, it appears to be for the betterment of a subsection of the game of cricket. The amateur game barely notices whether there are rises or falls, only the professional game would, and it is a valid question as to whether that is a price worth paying for a sport now in deep trouble.

Whether a reduction in income in return for vastly greater television exposure would be worthwhile depends entirely on where an observer is standing. Within the upper echelons of the game, it would be viewed as a disaster. Elsewhere, perhaps not so much. Yet this strikes at the very essence of the reason for the ECB’s existence. If it is not for the benefit of the game of cricket itself, but for the benefit of those employed within it, then the ECB haven’t just failed to abide by the terms of their own mission statements, they have demonstrated thoroughly that they don’t deserve to run the game.

And here lies the ultimate irony: Having presided over the transition of the game from one that managed to become a national icon in 2005 to one that barely registers in public consciousness, cricket has become so lacking in importance that the conduct of its governing authority passes without much notice, and without much interest. Giles Clarke once said (smugly) that no one cares about administration. He was correct, but not entirely for the reasons he was suggesting. No one cares about administration when the sport being administered has become irrelevent. And that’s why it’s not the failing of the ECB’s Five Pillars that is the problem, it’s that they’ve made such a monumental mess of it this century that few people any longer care enough to challenge them on it.

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