Can T20 Cricket Become A Dominant Sport In England?

Every decision that English cricket has made in the past decade has appeared to based on a single central premise: The future of the sport in England is T20. It is such a fundamental presumption, almost an article of faith, I am not sure that it has ever really been examined and questioned. Look at the success of the IPL and BBL, we are told, that could happen here with the right investment and marketing.

And yet it never does.

People, and executives, look enviously at Australia and particularly India as a template for how things might develop in this country but it just doesn’t seem to work in practice. It’s not for lack of trying. As well as The Hundred and three T20Is currently being shown each year on the BBC every year, there has also been the IPL on ITV4, the CPL on Dave, the BBL on five, and probably a few others that I have forgotten. There has barely been a year without T20 cricket being shown live on Freeview in the past decade, and it never catches on.

The men’s Hundred competition in 2022, shown on BBC Two in the primetime evening and weekend timeslots attracted an average of just over 500,000 viewers. The men’s Test series between England and India in 2021 managed more than that, even though three of the four matches began at 4am every morning. Despite the glut of T20 available on TV, despite Test cricket not being live on free-to-air television since 2005, despite being told that T20 is the most accessible format of cricket, the English public just don’t seem to care about it.

Obviously one factor is the competence of the people leading the sport in England. A large proportion of people at the ECB and counties would be considered unemployable in any well-run business, getting by with their ‘love of cricket’ (which almost always seems to manifest as a desire to cut the number of matches and/or teams, weirdly enough) and a public school accent. As the only providers of professional cricket in this country, they run an effective monopoly. They have a large, pre-existing audience, many of whom are prepared to spend vast amounts of money to watch matches. In a computer game, this would be considered ‘Easy mode’. Despite this in-built advantage, the number of people watching or playing cricket (ie the customer base) seems to drop every year. You could certainly make the argument that T20 cricket has never been ‘done right’ in England up until now because the ECB employs a lot of idiots.

T20 has certainly worked in India and Australia, so this begs the question: What difference between these countries and England might explain why it doesn’t work here. My theory is that it’s football’s fault. In India, cricket was already the dominant sport by some distance. All the IPL has done is maximise its commercial power with every second of every match televised whilst filling their huge stadia with crowds thanks to taking place outside work hours. In Australia, the dominant sport is Aussie rules football. This works very well for Cricket Australia because the AFL play exclusively during cricket’s off-season and, thanks to being played in oval grounds, also finances large-capacity grounds for cricket to be played in.

In England, the dominant sport is football. Unlike its Australian equivalent, the English football season extends significantly into the cricket season. To take 2018-19 as an example, being the last season unaffected by COVID-19 or a winter World Cup, the Charity Shield took place on the first weekend of August whilst the Champions League final was on the first weekend of June. That’s 300 days. Every other summer also features either the World Cup or Euros. That leaves just 65 days for cricket to fit in every second year, and even that is often dominated by transfer news and other football stories.

The duration and pace of Test cricket, rather than being a negative in this context, represents a vital point of difference for the sport. It is so completely unlike football that they don’t really compete. Even if someone does enjoy both football and cricket, they can watch a football match for two hours and then switch back to the Test cricket. It does not require viewers to choose one or the other.

T20 does the opposite. It’s played at the same time as football matches, and is about as close to the experience of watching football as English cricket can handle. A non-stop thrill ride in front of a raucous crowd should be ideal for television viewers and, by extension, television companies. The fundamental problem is that the majority of people who are inclined to enjoy such a spectacle not only already enjoy football, but might be actually watching football when The Hundred is on TV.

Interestingly, there may be more potential for domestic women’s T20 cricket to enter the mainstream consciousness in this country than for the men. As it stands, women’s football has yet to break through in this country and that presents a (missed) opportunity for the ECB. The example I would use for this is women’s football (or soccer) in the USA. It is more popular than the men’s equivalent, or very quickly approaching that point, arguably because it is facing less competition in its market. Of the dominant men’s team sports in North America, only basketball has invested in the women’s game to any significant degree. This has allowed football to gain purchase amongst people inclined to watch women’s sport even if they prefer (for example) American football or baseball. Unfortunately, the Sky TV deal prevents the ECB from massively expanding coverage of women’s cricket through deals with Freeview channels until 2029 and I suspect women’s football will have taken hold of the English summer by then.

As a thought experiment, imagine men’s cricket in England converted completely to T20 in 2024. England play 24 T20Is, whilst a league with all 18 counties plays matches every weekend plus a cup competition in the midweek. Does this make more money than the status quo? I don’t think it even comes close. For a start, it wipes all English Test revenue away. Tests account for about two-thirds of the current Sky TV deal, roughly £150m of the £220m per year contract, which six months of televised T20 Blast matches (assuming Sky even wants to broadcast them during the IPL) simply cannot replace. Neither would increased ticket sales make up the difference. Surrey CCC had higher turnover from hosting one Test and one ODI in 2022 than their domestic ticket sales and memberships combined. Meanwhile, counties with smaller grounds like Worcestershire might not lose international matches but would be heavily impacted by cuts to the £3m ECB grant all counties receive as a result of there being less TV money to go round.

So, the ECB and the the counties need Test cricket to thrive and keep themselves in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Take that away and suddenly English cricket is a lot less financially independent than it is now, and quite possibly unable to sustain 18 county teams. No longer one of the ‘big three’. Which is fine, because we can just keep scheduling Test matches and everything stays the same, more or less, except that England might be the only country in the world where T20 isn’t the preferred and most profitable cricket format. That presents a problem, because there is every reason to think that several of the ‘Test’ nations will pull back altogether from Tests. In the past year, Afghanistan hasn’t played a single Test, Ireland haven’t played one at home, whilst South Africa, Zimbabwe and the West Indies have only hosted two Tests each. They lose money every time they stage a Test match, except against England and India, so they understandably don’t do it. If they stop playing the format altogether, who will be left for England to play in the Test matches which the ECB relies on for money?

All of which brings us to the question in the post title: Can T20 cricket become a dominant sport in England? The answer is probably ‘no’, but Test cricket might not be sustainable in the long run either.

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