This summer is shaping up to be the most important in English cricket’s 300-year history. The game is facing fundamental change on two fronts. Cricket must battle against a dwindling grass roots base, an ageing fan base and its difficulty in attracting new sponsors, as well as adapting to a new TV partner with no experience of broadcasting the game.
Terry Blake, the English County Board (ECB) marketing director, underscores the importance of this summer’s activity when he says: “We are relaunching the sport in this country. These are very important and bold changes. They are about cricket’s need to change itself.”
The radical changes pushed through by ECB chairman and former Tesco boss Lord MacLaurin’s review will begin to be felt this year. There are four parts to domestic cricket. Firstly, the 18-club Sunday League becomes a two league fixture with nine in each, with promotion and relegation, as well as night and midweek games. This league will be sponsored by Commercial & General Union (CGU) for 8m over four years, as revealed in Marketing Week (February 18).
Secondly, Cricket’s “FA Cup”, the NatWest Trophy, will be reduced from 60 to 50 overs in each game.
Thirdly, the County Championship, involving four-day games between 18 top county teams, will also be spilt into two divisions.
Finally, there will be a new eight team 50-over knockout competition, called the Super Cup, with a showpiece final at Lord’s. The aim of these changes is to increase competition and create more exciting games.
The second front is Channel 4’s television coverage. Last October, the broadcaster pulled off its most audacious move since it started covering sport, by outbidding the BBC to bring test and county cricket to the commercial channel. The BBC might have had a 60-year relationship with the sport, but the 50m over four years offered by C4, plus an additional 13m for marketing cricket, won over a cash-strapped ECB. The BBC offered 4m less, and no marketing support.
C4 has the right to show 21 domestic test matches over the next four years, as well as the NatWest Trophy, from the quarter finals onwards.
Sky, which paid 53m, has won the rest of cricket. This means one domestic test match a year, the new National League, selected county championship games, and the new Super Cup knockout competition. It already has the rights to all of the England team’s foreign tours.
The ECB’s annual report for 1997/98 shows the body collected revenues of 43.6m for the sport in the period. Broadcast deals account for 40 per cent of that, with the remainder made up from sponsorship and international match ticket sales.
And, in the midst of this shake-up, the ECB has to organise the world game’s showpiece, the 1999 Cricket World Cup, which itself is no small matter. It involves organising 42 one-day games in five weeks between 12 nations.
It promises to be a busy year for Blake and his five-strong marketing team. But the year has not started well for the ECB.
Blake is the tournament director for the World Cup, and his team handles all the commercial rights for the competition. The team had hoped to attract eight main sponsors, each paying about 2m, but Blake recently admitted that time was running out and he will only add another one or two to his existing four. The four are Pepsi, Vodafone, NatWest, and Emirates airlines. And of these, NatWest and Vodafone already have a heavy involvement in the domestic game.
Vodafone director of communications Terry Barwick, who looks after the company’s 13m sponsorship of the England team, is sanguine about the number of sponsors in the competition. “If the ECB gets fewer sponsors then I’ll get more coverage. I’ve got my agreement and we are happy with the deal,” he says.
Barwick adds that he is not envious of the Nationwide building society, which has just signed a 14m deal to sponsor the England football team. “It hasn’t got its name on the shirts, as we have, and unless you work hard that can make your involvement peripheral.”
The forthcoming 8m deal with CGU is certainly impressive. But some involved in sponsorship believe that although the money is right, the sponsor is wrong.
One sponsorship director says: “What this league needed was a consumer brand like a soft drink or a beer which would put cricket on millions of cans every day. You should be able to go into a fast-food chain and buy a ‘cricket burger’ in the run-up to a big competition. Financial services companies, which have been the mainstay of cricket for years, only use their sponsorships as huge hospitality opportunities. But in today’s cut-throat environment sports bodies need partners which will help pull in consumers.”
Advantage Consulting managing director Paul Vaughan adds: “Cricket is in a chicken and egg situation. The sport wants big, young brands as sponsors. But these kinds of brands want to aim at a young target market. However much cricket wants to change, it currently has an older audience and so finds it hard to attract these brands.”
Blake thinks this is just carping. He says the Cricket World Cup will get money from TV, gate money, and merchandising. These deals have all been struck. “We will raise money from a variety of areas, not just sponsorship,” he says. “The competition is bigger than that.”
But there are others who think the game needs to change. M&C Saatchi Sponsorship chief executive Matthew Patten says: “Cricket is in an interesting position. It is one of the defining elements of British culture. But that position has declined, and can only be sustained for so long in a competitive sports market.”
Audiences for cricket have remained relatively flat over the past ten years. Club membership during the Nineties has changed little, with each of the 18 major counties on average adding just over a thousand members in the past six years.
The TV audiences for cricket have also remained static over the period. The BBC has an audience of 1.5 million to 2 million for test matches and 1 million for domestic cricket. Sky, which has shown cricket since 1990, and broadcasts more than 1,400 hours of the game each year, is now the largest broadcaster of the sport in this country, and attracts audiences of about 250,000 for tests and 54,000 for domestic games.
And according to English Sports Council figures, 3.3 per cent of the population has played cricket in the past year, compared with 7.1 per cent for tennis, and 11 per cent for golf.
The typical profile of the cricket fan is male, upmarket and aged about 45. John Ayling, managing director of media buyer John Ayling & Associates, as well as being a non-executive director on the ECB marketing Advisory Committee, says: “The audience who watch the BBC are older than we would have liked.”
This is where C4 comes in. It promises to show a highlights package in peaktime after the C4 News, which ends at 8pm. The network also says it will make cricket its main sports coverage and will show about 200 hours of the game this year.
By contrast, the BBC’s highlights coverage went out at 5.30pm or 1.00am, when the vast majority of fans and casual observers are either on their way back from work or in bed.
C4 chief executive Michael Jackson has promised to give the sport a “fresher, younger, more multicultural” feel.
How this will be done has still to be decided. The ECB and C4 hold regular meetings – one is scheduled for this week – about how the sport will be televised. What is known is that the BBC’s Richie Benaud and Sky’s Mark Nicholas will be the anchor presenters. The channel, unlike the BBC, will stay with the game at tea and lunch. There will also be other presenters who will go among the crowd at key moments in the game.
One insider, who was at C4’s presentation, says: “David Brook (C4 director of strategy and development) and his team have spent a lot of time in Australia studying Channel Nine’s coverage. That was the channel which covered the controversial Kerry Packer matches when the game tried to reinvent itself in the Seventies. The idea is for more informal coverage. I don’t think C4 will fail with cricket. It has a good track record presenting sport. It has good people, and frankly, with the amount of investment it has put into the sport it can’t afford to fail.”
Cricket’s rebirth will be difficult. The structure of the game has been sensibly slimmed down. But it will need to address its failure to draw in new talent. In the UK, this has been the case for decades, but it is spreading to other cricketing countries. Children in the West Indies now prefer to play basketball or football. Cricket might be played across the world, but its heartland is the Indian sub-continent and Australia. It does not enjoy the global appeal of tennis or golf.
One of the sport’s main problems in the UK is football: the national game has expanded in every way, in the proportion of the calendar year it takes up – as well as the broadcast and sponsorship money it attracts. Athletics and rugby have been similarly adversely affected.
During C4’s presentation to the ECB, one member of the network told the governing body: “There is a great latent demand for cricket, it just needs to be ignited.”
This remains to be seen. Cricket is caught between football and burgeoning youth sports such as snowboarding and mountain biking which eat away at the share of this ancient sport’s audience.
C4 may find that, when it begins its cricket coverage, its “latent” audience is either in the pub watching a summer football tournament on Sky or rollerblading in the park.