Much as been made recently of the BBC’s decision to omit any of the Ashes winning England cricket team from Sport Personality of the Year this year, and whilst most are in agreement that SPOTY is but a relic, designed to carry favour with the few sports that the BBC still has left, there has also been general consent that this is a worry for the future of the game. There have been a number of excellent articles written about this, George Dobbell’s piece being the best in my opinion – http://www.espncricinfo.com/england/content/story/947713.html, and hence I don’t want to cover old ground by focusing too much on this. However I do feel there is more of a piece that needs to be covered around what we can possibly do to try and breathe live back into a sport, which for all intensive purposes is struggling to win both the hearts and minds of the British public.
A sensible and much heralded opinion is that the sport has declined in popularity since the end of FTA coverage and the move to Sky, where only those with deep pockets have been able to watch both domestic and international cricket for the past decade. Don’t get me wrong, as much as I think Sky’s coverage of cricket on the whole is excellent (if you take out Nick Knight and Dominic Cork it would be so much better); however their viewing figures compared to the last major series on FTA speak for themselves – In 2005 an average of 2.5m watched the Ashes series on a daily basis with FTA access on Channel 4, with 8.4m people transfixed by the climax of the fourth Test compared to just over 460,000 who watched the final day of the first (and only vaguely competitive) Test of the 2015 series. That is not just a big drop off, that is a complete haemorrhage of cricket viewers.
This has cascaded down further, there are plenty of figures that show the popularity of the sport has also been in sharp decline for the past few years now, with The ECB participation survey highlighting that 844,000 participated in the game in 2014 compared to the 908,000 in 2013 and by Sport England’s own figures that show a decline of just over a third from 2006-2014. I, like most others would welcome the return of some cricket to FTA, even if I think the possibility of this ever happening is incredibly remote (Rupert Murdoch is not renowned for his corporate social responsibility and Sky’s model has always been around locking in big sporting events); however I’m not overly convinced by those arguments that make this the one silver bullet, that will return cricket to it’s heyday of 2005, it seems to be a far too simplistic argument to me. I believe there are a number of factors in place here, some fairly obvious, some far more nuanced, that need to take place before we can see both viewing and participation figures start to head in the opposite direction.
I will happily concede the FTA coverage of the England cricket team, was probably the main reason why I came in contact and started to love the sport. I had no real reason to come into contact with cricket whilst I was growing up, my family are Irish (before cricket got popular over there) and had no interest in the sport. My old man loved football and hence I was taken to football to play in a team at an early age. I also went to a primary school with a small concrete playground and no playing fields, so really the signs weren’t promising that I would ever come in contact with cricket as a sport. This is where FTA coverage was great for me. The summer used to be a barren time with no football, wet summer holidays spent in the UK (certainly in my younger years) and an inordinate amount of boredom if I was stuck inside. I would literally watch any sport – cricket, tennis and sometimes even golf (though that was pushing it a bit) to keep me pre-occupied until the football season started again. As with anything, the more I watched cricket, the more I got to understand it and the more I got to enjoy it, even if watching the England team throughout the 90’s was viewed by many as sheer masochism. This was how I got into the sport and I was absolutely delighted when my old man caved in and bought Sky in 1993 as he missed the Premiership too much (we had spent a couple of years pretending Italian football on Channel 4 was the best league in the world), which meant that I could also start to watch some of the Away tests that Sky was showing as well as feeding my own love of English football.
However, One of my main complaints about the FTA argument is that we’re basing the argument on our own experiences of coming into contact with the game, which in my case is around 25 years ago and certainly not how today’s generation Y or Z (or whatever generation the children of today are, I’ve lost count) would consume content. If I use an example of my Niece and Nephew, who don’t even watch the TV anymore unless there is a film on or they have been told to leave their iPad’s at home. The generation of today can pretty much download any content at any time they want to and hence as a result, attention spans I would guess are shorter than they once were. If they start watching something or playing a game and get bored, then they can switch to watching something else whereas I had 4 channels and snoopy tennis to keep me amused as a child, so you generally stuck with things more, even the slightly more tedious passages of play when Australia were thumping our bowlers to all parts. The major challenge with all sport, but cricket even more so, is that the cricket players and fans of the future don’t consume information the same way we did at their age, nor looking at Sport England’s figures, do they participate in as much sporting activity as we did 10-20 years ago. I strongly believe you could have shown all of the Ashes tests on BBC One throughout the summer and the demographics of those watching wouldn’t have particularly changed (yes you would get greater numbers with an influx of non-Sky subscribers, but I doubt you would have got too many new fans). I totally agree that we need to open up the sport so more can actively watch games and hopefully look to emulate those at the top of the game (and I believe Sky could help by potentially selling 5 day tickets for £20 on their On Demand Access service) but feel that FTA is but a part of the solution and there needs more focus to stream both live games and comprehensive highlights, especially of T20 games, through the web as it will likely to garner more interest with those who have yet to come in contact with the game. Access is king here and FTA, whilst something I would very much welcome, is only part of the solution.
Another major aspect (and in my opinion of far greater consideration) is how do we get people playing the game again. Football has the monopoly here. It is a sport that is supported across the world and on the whole easier and cheaper to get kids playing it, even with sport participation dwindling massively over the past few years. I started playing football when I was 6, partly because my parents enjoyed the sport and partly because it was a lot cheaper to buy me a football and some football boots and to let me run off some of my youthful energy. You can also play football pretty much anywhere and me and my friends did as kids. Cricket is more difficult, it is more expensive to buy equipment, less prominent in the majority of schools and has less of a fan base to operate with than say football, as most children will take up the sport of their parent preference. Again, If I go back to my own experiences as a child, I had never really had that much urge to play the game despite enjoying watching it on FTA. We never had a cricket games at primary and secondary school and my only real experience was playing it in the large garden of mutual friend, whose father was passionate about the game. In the end, I was lucky enough to befriend the captain of the town’s under 12 cricket team, who were always on the look out for more players and was invited down to see if I could play (thankfully I had pretty good hand-eye co-ordination and was lively in the field, which meant I got in the team fairly quickly, although my dream of being the next Shane Warne never really made it past first base). I played cricket all the way through my teens and then in various 2nd XI’s into my late twenties, as although, I wasn’t actually that good but could bowl and bat a bit, I still really enjoyed playing the game and was happy to give up parts of my weekend to play. My point here is that I wouldn’t have had the exposure or chance to play if I hadn’t made friends with the captain of the local team as the access to the sport, especially at state school level where most don’t have a chance to play cricket, is incredibly poor. The crux of the matter is that we will continue to see participation drop, if we do not give more opportunities to those not from the previous hotbeds of cricket (i.e. those that might not have been traditionally viewed as prime cricket material) and this in turn will result in fewer people taking up the game, more cricket clubs closing because they can’t field an XI and eventually a mighty old headache for the ECB, when people stop paying top dollar to attend England test matches as people lose interest.
As much as I find the ECB an insipid and quite frankly an out of touch organization, even they are beginning to wake up to this fact. David Hopps’ article on the appointment of Matt Dwyer, the ECB’s director of participation and growth is an interesting piece –http://www.espncricinfo.com/england/content/story/950475.html, and highlights some of the real challenges that the sport is currently facing. Cricket more than ever, is the preserve of the wealthy and those that can afford to send their children to Private School. Without doing any particular research, I would guess that most of those currently playing in the England cricket team went to Private School and thereby had access to the facilities that those of us who didn’t, would only dream about (I remember as a kid, my team managed to negotiate 2 winter net sessions a season at the local private school and we felt lucky that we were able to do so.) The Chance to Shine programme, though laudable, has yet to really take off and has only really scratched the surface in engaging children to start playing the sport and needs to be ramped up significantly. We need somehow to get this on the national curriculum otherwise cricket will continue to be a sport of the elitist and local facilities and clubs will continue to be ripped up and shut as many local authorities and schools look to cut their cloth in a world of continued financial hardships. This is both the biggest challenge and opportunity for the ECB, although whether Matt Dwyer and the ECB are up to the challenge is a question in itself, I do wish them good luck though.
The final piece of the puzzle in getting more people engaged in the sport is also by having the opportunity to watch it live. I went to my first test match in 1999, when I was studying at University (or supposed to have been and was lucky my next door neighbor suddenly found himself with a spare ticket) and have attended at least 2 games per year for the last 16 years since. I’ve also been out to watch England tour a couple of times, which I’m sure the ECB are grateful to me in help swelling their coiffures during this time, even if there gratitude normally extends to raising the price of tickets for the following summer. My main observation though is that now it is pretty much impossible to take a family to a Test Match these days unless you have a lot of money to burn (circa £250 for a family of four is mind wateringly expensive). It is getting rarer and rarer to see a parent and their children at one of the test games these days and unfortunately I really can’t see this changing in the short term. The ECB, like myself, understands the metrics of supply and demand and in the majority, though perhaps not this year, the demand has outstripped the supply, hence the ability to charge obscene prices for both tickets and refreshments in the ground. This is where I feel county cricket can come in and help fill the void. As my article earlier in the year suggested, I don’t feel that county cricket is in the rudest of health and I certainly don’t think it helps itself in many cases. That said, I do think that this is the easiest, cheapest and most accessible place to get more people involved with the game (and not just those that turn up on a Friday night at the T20’s to try and shove as much beer down their throats as humanly possible) with a few changes to the schedule and structuring.
Now I hadn’t planned when I was first thinking about writing this article about wading into the T20 debate, but the more I think about it, the more essential I feel that this is to the health of the game. As I mentioned in my last paragraph, the T20 blast, which should be the easiest way of getting kids into watching the game, is now largely a no go because of the scheduling of all games on a Friday night. I went to 5 T20 Blast games last year and many of them (especially those at the Oval) would be the last place where I would want to take young children as half of the crowd have decided that it’s a prelude for heavy drinking and as a result, increasingly we are starting to seeing more drink induced episodes of violence, which has no place at the cricket, or anywhere else in my mind. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a number of games that I attended in my twenties where some of the action after tea was a bit of a blur, but it was all pretty good humored and very different to the atmosphere at some T20 games (interestingly, I found the out-grounds to be far more welcoming with a nice mix of young and old, make of that what you will). Nor do I blame the Counties in driving through their desire to have all of the T20 blast games on a Friday, as it’s a great money spinner and indeed essential to some for their continued survival; however the current format of the tournament is a logistical nightmare for Players and Broadcasters alike and in my opinion is of a lower quality to those T20 leagues player around the world (and judging from the comments of the England ODI captain, it looks like the players are in agreement). The more I think about it, the more I feel that we need to embrace a franchise league played in 5/6 weeks over the Summer holidays. Now I understand that this might be seen as heresy in some quarters, but my the two main reasons underpinning my thoughts on this are that:
- Firstly every game can be aired on TV including some kind of FTA/streaming capacity to be able to better reach the masses so that we don’t get the farcical situation of only a couple of thousand people being able to see Chris Gayle smash the ball around at Taunton or watch Glen Maxwell, Brendon McCullum and other world class T20 players that could inspire a generation.
- Secondly, by basing this tournament around the Summer holidays and with games scheduled at different times of the day with a sensible pricing policy, then there will be opportunities for all types of cricket fans to attend the games, not just those who see it as a chance to drink a lot of beer on a Friday night.
This I believe would help open up the sport to a whole different range of supporters especially with the carrot of being able to watch and hopefully then try to emulate more world class superstars who I feel, would be far more attracted to come over and play in a shortened tournament as well as likely increasingly the skill level of the competition – a win-win for both fans and players alike.
I also believe the four day game has a part to play in this too, although the scheduling and cost doesn’t help at all at the moment. There has to be a movement by the counties for getting the majority of the games back to starting on a Saturday, when they are most accessible for both those that work and those that have families. The move to Sunday or even Monday starts has meant that it is increasingly difficult to view county cricket, whether you are sold on it’s merits or not, and seems to me to be completely at odds with trying to attract a new audience to the game (as well as increasing attendances for the most difficult format “to sell” to the public.) It’s all very well pointing to increased attendances in cricket http://www.skysports.com/cricket/news/12123/10076035/cricket-attracts-record-crowds-for-domestic-and-international-games, although I think there are many factors here with these statistics (and some that aren’t as perhaps as wholesome as we would like), I’d be very surprised if the demographics of those attending those games, especially the county games, have changed at all. I also believe that the pricing for the games is wrong, with it being relatively expensive for a family to come down and watch a day of county fair (£20 for adults and £12 for children, I believe at Lords). Why not introduce a family ticket for £30 whereby 2 adults and up to 2 children can come and watch the cricket for a day? This would surely make more sense as it will firstly mean a fairly inexpensive day out for a family, build more atmosphere inside the ground and most importantly, provide access to live cricket of a decent quality for a broader audience.
In summary, there are a few fundamental changes that need to be made in my opinion, some of which can be done in the short term and some that will take longer, mainly due to contractual obligations:
- A franchise T20 competition to take place over 5/6 weeks during the Summer holidays with fair ticket pricing and ability to watch free of charge over YouTube or another similar site
- Most county games to start on a Saturday with a fairer pricing policy including family tickets
- The ECB to commit to double it’s spend on grass routes cricket inclusive of investing in pitches and equipment to both cricket clubs and also to show a commitment to invest in cricket at state school level
- FTA access to at least 1 ODI and 1 T20 International per series – this can be done via one of Sky’s intermediary channels such as Pick TV
- £20 Sky Access TV tickets to watch a test match in its’ entirety, £10-£15 tickets for ODI’s and T20 Internationals
Now these are simply my opinions and many may will disagree with them, but one thing is for certain is that we can’t simply sit back and hope the current status quo magically produces a new wave of cricket fans, it simply isn’t going to happen, even in Colin Grave’s wildest dreams. The foundations of the ivory towers in which the ECB currently presides are starting to look as unstable as they have ever been and one only needs to look at the current state of West Indies cricket as a reminder that blind faith counts for very little when you ignore the most pressing of problems. Now I do hasten to add, that I’m not trying to directly compare the current situation of West Indies cricket with that of English cricket, the WICB has the unenviable position of making the ECB look like a bastion of a sensibility and a well run cricket board in the extreme, an unenviable achievement in itself; however both have had the same problem, albeit the West Indies on a far quicker scale than in England, in that they are governing a sport that has experienced a serious decline in popularity. The ECB aren’t staring at the precipice just yet, but the cliff is beginning to crumble beneath their feet.
Giles Clarke may have blustered “that Test cricket was in rude health” in the film Death of a Gentleman, but it was just that, desperate bluster. I believe that his decision to sell most of the other cricket nations down the river in his support of creating the big three is almost a “King Canute” situation, desperate to repel the tide, but who’s only strategy is to play against Australia and India more in the hope that it might buy them a few more years and boost the coiffures. It indeed might, but I’m not sure it will, it seems like a desperate attempt by an increasingly desperate board to make as much money as they can whilst the sun shines; Very soon, the cricketing public will become blasé about another Ashes series or another series against an uncompetitive Indian team (I think it’s closer than anyone at the ECB actually thinks) and will vote with their feet. As I mentioned earlier on in the piece, the ECB has a rudimentary grasp on supply and demand and this may well spring them into some much needed action, after all, no punters, no queue of companies offering to sponsor “Hydration breaks” and a big hit in the ECB’s pocket. The strong ivory tower that the ECB thought they constructed might well have foundations made out of sand after all.
Cricket in England is in decline unfortunately and whilst not in a death spiral just yet, there are plenty of reasons to be very concerned. Unless there is radical and fundamental change in the way cricket is administered in England and in the way that new fans are brought into the game, then cricket risks becoming a relic, mourned by the traditionalists, but largely irrelevant to the rest of modern society. Over to you Colin and Tom, no pressure chaps…