“As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find nothing.” – Aesop’s Fables
It is difficult to over exaggerate how much English cricket relies on Test cricket financially. Perhaps as much as two-thirds of the ECB’s total domestic income comes from the six or seven red ball internationals played every summer. The ticket sales alone for a home Ashes series draws in almost as much income as the entire Hundred (Including TV rights, sponsors, and 34/35 ‘full’ grounds) in a year.
Which is what makes it so surprising that the ECB seems intent on prioritising a competition which is losing money, and seems certain to continue losing money for the next six years without significant changes, to the detriment of their proverbial golden goose.
For a simple indication of the two formats’ relative worth: In 2019, the idea was mooted by MCC members that one Test every season, played at Lord’s, should be shown on Freeview. Sky responded by saying that such a move would cost the ECB £50m per year. For a single Test match. The total revenue for The Hundred in 2021 was £52m.
It has been said repeatedly by supporters of The Hundred that it is vital for the competition is played in August, since more children will be able to attend games or watch them on TV than at any other time of the year. This may be fair enough as an argument if your sole priority is the long term health of this one competition, but it is baffling in the context of English cricket as a whole.
Given that the ECB (and therefore the counties also) are so financially reliant on Test cricket, it would seem like a sensible measure to ensure that as many children as possible were able to watch it on TV, to become the next generation of fans (and, more cynically, customers). Instead, the ECB has chosen to do the opposite.
There is also the matter of attendance. The T20 Blast was shifted from primarily being in August in 2019 to June in 2022, and this appeared to cause a 23% decline in ticket sales. Given the high demand and high price for Test tickets in England, a similar fall in sales might cost the ECB several million pounds every year.
It should be said, in fairness to Tom Harrison and others at the ECB, that they acknowledge the reliance that English cricket has on a handful of Test matches every season. It was a key goal of The Hundred to become a second source of income for the game, to act as a safety net in the event that the commercial viability of the red ball game declined. That is not an unlikely scenario, not least because clowns like Harrison have been in charge of English Test cricket for a long time.
The initial indications from The Hundred this year don’t seem to indicate that the competition deserves this extraordinary level of support from the ECB. Viewing figures on the BBC for the men’s and women’s opening matches appear to be almost half what they were in 2021, suggesting very little interest from the wider public. And, to be clear, this is before the men’s Test series against South Africa has begun. Moving next year’s Ashes to a less favourable slot in the calendar wouldn’t obviously have any positive effect on The Hundred, but could have a severe negative impact on the number of people watching the Tests.
Cricket Australia hosts both a T20 competition and their Test series at the same time, with no obvious harm to either. The idea that it is necessary to sacrifice England internationals in order to ensure the growth and popularity of The Hundred is blatantly false. The whole exercise stinks of some worried executives throwing every possible resource behind a project they are publicly considered responsible for, or perhaps have bonuses linked to the success of, not caring about the wider damage it will cause the organisation and people they are supposed to represent.
The ECB is insulated somewhat from the consequences of their actions, at least for a while. A new Sky TV deal has already been agreed which offers them a similar guaranteed income over the next six years, albeit one that will likely be worth a lot less over time due to high inflation in the UK. The problem will come when they look to negotiate the next contract, from 2029 onwards. If interest in the longest format is diminished, and by extension its commercial worth, then it would lead to a significant devaluation in what Sky and their competitors thought the rights are worth paying for. That would be catastrophic for the ECB, and particularly the counties.
Or maybe I am wrong. But I don’t think I am.
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