Unleash the Cricket

Members’ Forum, Grace Road, 13th October 2016

At any given time, somewhere in this country, in a conference centre, lecture hall or meeting room, a man (or woman, but in the present case a man) will be standing in front of a screen, about to deliver a presentation. He may or may not believe what he is about to say, but he knows that his audience will be, at best, suspicious, at worst hostile. His task is to persuade them to accept some proposal for change. He may believe that this change will genuinely be in the best interests of his audience, or he might know full well that it is not. He may know that he has to persuade them for the change to occur, or (more likely) that it is going to happen anyway. There may be some scope to modify the proposal, or the “consultation process” might be a complete sham.

The presentation will contain most of the following (in bullet point-style, to adopt the conventions of the genre):

  • An attempt to establish that the speaker (on behalf of the management) understands the “concerns” of the audience, that their interests are the same, that they are all on the same side, really.
  • Some threats (of the awful consequences if the proposal is not adopted).
  • The phrase “The status quo is not an option”.
  • A lot of statistics, which the audience are in no position to query, however untrue they may appear to their own experience and intuition.
  • These statistics presented as the outcome of “research”, without much explanation of the source or methodology, or opportunity to query either. The speaker to announce the results of this “research” as if he were a high priest reporting back from a session with the Delphic Oracle.
  • Reassurance that the bleak future implied by the research need not come to pass (the audience does not need to “reach for the razorblades” or “throw itself out of the window”), if only the proposal is adopted.
  • The proposal, outlined in easy-reading infographics, decorated with pictures of vibrant and diverse young people, these representing The Future.
  • Questions (to be deflected or embraced, depending on how awkward or supportive they happen to be).

Anyone who has experience of these occasions, from either side of the divide, might be forgiven for approaching another with a certain weariness, which may explain why so few turned up to last Thursday’s Members’ Forum at Grace Road (it stuck fairly faithfully to the template above). I counted roughly 35 (out of a total membership of, I would guess, 5-700), of whom I recognised about half as regular attenders at Championship matches. Other explanations for the low turnout might be that it had only been extensively publicised on the internet (which, in many cases, our members do not have, or know how to use), and that the timing and venue (Grace Road at 6.15 on a dull October evening) will have discouraged both older members who prefer not to drive into Leicester at night, and younger ones who may not have time to get there after work (or to spare on a school night). Anyone who relies on buses (as many do) would be completely stymied, as they would be unlikely to get home again.

The event had been advertised as a chance to question Colin Graves, Waseem Khan and others. In the event, Waseem (for whom I have a lot of respect, but who is unlikely to do anything to queer his pitch with the ECB), occupied a supportive-but-not-wanting-to-get-too-involved position in the front row and said nothing. Graves spoke about 15 words (of which four were “workstreams”, “stakeholders”, “going” and “forward”), then sat and observed, looking both avuncular and vaguely sinister, as though he were simultaneously sucking on a Werther’s Original and stroking a white Persian cat. I thought I caught him looking askance at my scribbling in a notebook, but perhaps it is just that his eyes follow you around the room, like the Mona Lisa. The talking and pointing was done by Gordon Hollins (the Chief Operating Officer) and Mike Fordham (who has been involved with marketing both the IPL and the BB). Both appeared personable and plausible, but then, if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have been doing their jobs.

I won’t spend too much time outlining the ECB’s case. Anyone who is at all interested in this subject will already be aware of the main points of their research from newspaper reports, and if you require more detail try looking at the ECB’s website under “Cricket Unleashed” (it even has a Powerpoint template, if you would like to make a presentation to yourself). But the gist of it is as follows:

  • All of English cricket (county, club, women’s – the lot) depends on financial support from the ECB.
  • 90% of the ECB’s revenue derives from bilateral international series (mostly from broadcasting rights). It is assumed that this will decline, leaving English cricket in a precarious position.
  • The only viable alternative revenue stream (see how I’m picking up the lingo) will come from T20 cricket.
  • Participation is in decline (apparently half of club cricketers are thinking of giving up next season – probably more if they’ve just made another duck or put their back out again).
  • The majority of those attending all forms of cricket (including T20) are male, over 45 and in social classes ABC1. When asked to choose a word to describe cricket, most 5-15 year-olds chose “boring” (their second choice was “ambivalent”, which suggests that it wasn’t a very long list).

The solution?

  • Create a new T20 tournament that will appeal to that proportion of the supposed “9.4 million” who have some interest in cricket, but do not currently attend matches.
  • This audience will be younger and more “diverse”. The ECB will be able to attract sponsorship and advertising from companies (such as soft drinks manufacturers) who aim their products at a younger audience, rather than the booze and financial services industries, which only appeal to us oldies.
  • This new competition will be “a new event and a new narrative”, a “TV orientated product” which will be marketed through non-traditional media.
  • It will be aimed at a family audience, in particular “Mums, who hold the purse strings”, looking for somewhere to take the children in the Summer holidays.
  • The marketors (yes, that is a word – they even have their own Worshipful Company) will seek to learn from the WWE and other “entertainment products”.
  • The new tournament will rejuvenate the game and protect the revenue stream that irrigates the rest of English cricket and allows it to flower.

So far, so good (or not, but plausible, at any rate). But what will the new tournament look like in practice?

  • The likely start date is 2020 (two or three years later than originally proposed). “20/20 in 2020” is, as Mike Fordham suggested, “a marketor’s dream” (and he seems to place an inordinate trust in their powers of divination).
  • The new teams will not be “franchises”, or even “city-based” (any mention of these terms from the floor prompted an immediate correction), they will be regional teams, which will attract regional support and offer the players an intermediate stage between county and international cricket.
  • The TV deal for the new competition is likely to contain some FTA broadcasts.
  • The new teams will play most of their games at a Test match ground, but may also play some at the grounds of the other counties in the region (e.g. Grace Road).
  • It will be played in a single block in August.
  • The counties will each receive £1.3 million in revenue (more for those hosting matches).

So (I think this is what interested those in the audience most), what will the new season look like? Something like this:

  • April (& May?) : the 50 over cup (a revival of the unlamented, frozen, days when the season began with the qualifying rounds of the B&H).
  • June-July : a slightly reduced T20 blast, played mostly on Friday evenings (to keep the booze’n’balti brigade happy).
  • August : the new Sunny D Supercharge plus … apparently, some kind of limited overs tournament that will include those county players unwanted by the regional sides, but also the minor counties.
  • The County Championship will, I think, be fitted into the gaps from April to July, cease in August and resume in September.
  • There will be fewer Test matches.

And so (again), what did I think? Quite a few things, as you can imagine, but thought that, for once, I would try to report the facts without too much opinionating. But, for what it’s worth, here’s a few …

  • Much depends on how far you are prepared to trust the ECB, and take what they are saying at face value. I don’t belong to the faction that sees them as evil personified (I didn’t notice any half-gnawed baby’s bones hidden under Colin Graves’ chair), and I don’t doubt that most of their officers and employees have what they conceive to be the best interests of English cricket at heart. On the other hand, if they thought the greater good of English cricket (and their careers) justified the extinction of one or two counties, or their relegation to the minor counties, I doubt they would hesitate to do so. (My objection to the ECB has never been as much to its personnel or actions as to its existence in its current over-mighty form : it was brought into being by the Counties, and, like Dr. Frankenstein, they may be starting to have second thoughts about their creation.)
  • I certainly shalln’t be watching the new T20 competition, but then, if I were planning to, the marketors would have failed : I am precisely the sort of undesirable they wish to repel. Who will is another matter, and a crucial one, given that the whole tottering edifice of English cricket appears to depend on its success. I would guess the regional teams might appeal in some regions (for instance Yorkshire), but less so in the East Midlands – most Leicester and Derby fans would only visit Trent Bridge to burn the place down (for football-related reasons). So, the future of English cricket does seem to depend rather a lot on uncovering enough of those purse-string controlling Mums.
  • I have long suspected that, if I am still watching Leicestershire and Northants in 20 years time, it will be at some level between the current Minor Counties and Division 2 of the Championship, quite possibly on a semi-professional basis and at outgrounds (and, as I suggested only last month when I visited Belper Meadows, on a purely selfish level, that would suit me well enough). The messages here were mixed : Hollins went out of his way to stress that the ECB represented all 39 counties, on the other hand that “parity of first class status is critical” and there would be no minor first-class counties. But if all goes to plan, and I find myself in August 2020 watching a Leicestershire XI playing Bedfordshire at Wardown Park, that will feel very much like the future to me.

Any questions?

I was too slow-witted to think of it at the time, but, if I had asked a question, it would have been this:

“You have referred several times to the WWE as a potential role model for your new competition, in particular for the way in which it has been successfully marketed to children. As you have admitted, the WWE is not a sport, but an “entertainment product” ; in the USA it is legally classified as “sports entertainment”, the distinction being that in “sports entertainment” the outcome of the bouts, and indeed, their entire narrative, may proceed according to a pre-determined script. Or, to put it more bluntly, the matches are all fixed. As it is largely this – the guarantee of spectacular action and an interesting narrative, however artificial – that makes it easy to market to children, is that an aspect of the WWE that you will be seeking to emulate?

And, as a supplementary question, you have made it clear that you are hoping to appeal to an audience who know very little about cricket. That being so, how can they be expected to know whether what they are watching is fixed? Would you expect them to care? Would you care?”

Answers, please, on a Powerpoint slide …

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2 thoughts on “Unleash the Cricket

  1. I’m sure you are correct that the lack of publicity along with the timing and the venue had a lot to do with the low attendance but feel you have missed the obvious reason which is found by asking yourself the question – how many cricket supporters in their right minds would want to spend a couple of hours in the company of Colin Graves?

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