Last summer was dubbed the most important in English cricket’s history, with new broadcaster Channel 4 pledging to rejuvenate a 300-year-old game that was showing its age. But that’s nothing compared with this year’s challenge, following sponsor defections and a damaging corruption scandal that has hit the sport for six.
The last year of the millennium marked a major turning point for the sport, with a new structure, devised by England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) chairman and former Tesco boss Lord MacLaurin; a new main sponsor, CGU; and a new broadcaster in the form of C4. The ECB also hosted the Cricket World Cup.
Despite some disappointing performances by the England team, off the pitch the gloom was beginning to lift.
C4’s broadcasts were generally well-received. Viewing figures showed the channel’s coverage – which involved more cameras, close-ups, graphics and greater crowd participation – achieved its objective of attracting a younger, upmarket audience – and more women. In its first summer, the channel attracted an average 1.2 million viewers for each session, with the highest figure being 2.1 million – a 21 per cent audience share.
The channel, which captured the TV rights package from the BBC in a &£50m four-year deal, plus &£13m for marketing, was praised for broadcasting highlights at 7.40pm, rather than after midnight like the BBC.
But critics believe it will take a lot more than C4 – which is arguably a niche broadcaster – for cricket to shine. Just when the English game thought it was beginning to emerge from the shadows, it has been caught out by sponsor exits and match-fixing scandals.
Late last year, Cornhill Insurance announced that after 22 years it was to pull out of sponsoring the Test series, while NatWest said it would not be renewing its deal with cricket’s FA Cup – the NatWest Trophy, which runs out at the end of this season.
In any case, NatWest will support this summer’s triangular one-day Test series between England, Zimbabwe and the West Indies, its recent takeover by the Royal Bank of Scotland casts doubt over future activities.
Meanwhile, England cricket star Chris Lewis’ recent match-fixing allegations – which followed South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje’s bribery confession – have fuelled the crisis. Lewis also claims he first informed ECB officials of the allegations more than a year ago.
So has this latest storm wrecked the ECB’s fragile commercial recovery?
Not according to marketing manager Richard Masters, who remains upbeat about the board’s ability to attract new sponsors. He says: “We are well on target with our commercial plans and, although we are not close to an announcement, we are confident we will have both sponsors in place by the summer.”
He claims C4’s coverage has strengthened cricket’s brand proposition: “C4 has done an excellent job. Not only has it maintained the BBC’s viewing figures but attracted more upmarket under-35s – and more women.”
Not everyone is convinced. One cricket industry insider says: “The ECB had a tough enough job on its hands in trying to attract new sponsors, but these match-fixing scandals – in particular Lewis’ allegations – have made it virtually impossible to sell sponsorship of Test cricket and the Trophy.
“The International Cricket Council’s crackdown [announced last week] will go some way to repairing the game’s image, but there is still a feeling in company boardrooms that the sport is tainted.
“What sort of business would be willing to have its name associated with a sport which has had its brand dragged through the sewer so publicly?”
Over the years, many of the game’s sponsors have migrated to other sports, the most notable of which were Tetley switching to rugby and Axa moving to football. So cricket is no longer at the top of many clients’ list of sports worth backing.
Tim Crow, business development director at sponsorship specialist Karen Earl, worked at the ECB in the late Eighties: “English cricket’s big problem is the fact that there’s no feel-good factor. And clients we talk to aren’t exactly falling over each other to sponsor the sport.”
Many observers draw parallels with Rugby Union, which, like cricket, is virtually bankrupt at club level. What, they ask, is the attraction for young, emerging players when footballers such as Manchester United star David Beckham can earn more in two weeks than a county cricketer can expect to reap in a lifetime.
They believe many companies don’t want to be associated with a sport bereft of personalities. And, although football’s massive dominance is unhealthy for British sport, the very fact means there is little chance of smaller sports breaking its stranglehold.
Crow adds: “It’s easy to be over-critical, but cricket is still the national summer sport. After all, the football season ends in May.
“In the UK, cricket is going through a transitional period and the national team’s performance is not exactly helping matters. Yet even in the so-called ‘golden age’ of Ian Botham, Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch we were still regularly thrashed.
“Brands such as Scrumpy Jack and PPP Healthcare invest millions of pounds in the game, and internationally the sport is thriving. Try telling people in India, Pakistan or Australia that cricket is on its knees.”
A C4 spokesman says: “Cricket’s image has been tarnished but we remain totally committed to the sport. We always recognised that the second year would be tougher than the first.”
So the challenge for the ECB – and C4 – seems greater than ever. Cricket has proved its ability to lure those elusive under-35s, but now it must repair its image and attract them in sufficient numbers to bowl over the most important audience of all: corporate sponsors.