Although team selection issues may divide opinion, it almost goes without saying that the vast majority of English cricket fans are appalled by the ECB’s institutional conduct over recent years. The carve-up of cricket the board agreed with Cricket Australia and the BCCI last year is in my view the most egregious of all of their misdemeanours, given its far-reaching implications for the entire game – but supporters are just as angry with the continued absence of cricket on free-to-air TV, the high price of attending England games, and the ECB’s general attitude to supporters that, depending on your point of view, ranges from callous indifference to outright hostility.
But what is the best way to make our feelings heard? We can sound off as much as we like on this blog and social media generally, but there’s little evidence the ECB pays us much attention. The speed at which word spreads on Facebook and Twitter makes it comparatively easy to rapidly build up a group of followers numbering six figures – but at the same time makes it easy for those in power to dismiss such groups as an unruly mob who will quickly move on to the next social media storm.
So it’s vital that, to make our message heard, we must take it beyond the virtual world of the internet and social media into the physical one.
Such protests are beginning. As covered in James’ recent postings, before the beginning of the final Ashes Test, the Change Cricket group, led by the admirable Jarrod Kimber, made a symbolic protest of three minutes’ silence outside the Oval – one for each of the three cricket boards who have so disgracefully turned international cricket into their own personal fiefdom.
In recent weeks, supporters at Hove, concerned about how proposals for a T20 city franchise competition might impact on their beloved Sussex, made their feelings heard at a live game – typically, an ECB official moving in to try and snuff it out.
Most cricket fans will never have been involved in a protest in their lives – in a way it’s almost “not cricket” to make a fuss and reject decisions of authority. But we can look to other sports as a model for what may and may not work. How do we balance the tightrope of making our point heard by those in power without alienating those who’d otherwise be on our side?
In football, the Glazer family’s takeover of Manchester United in 2005 brought about significant protest from a wide range of fan groups. Although the parallels are not quite exact, the Glazers’ stewardship of the club over the last decade bears many similarities to the ECB’s running of English cricket – significant ticket price hikes pricing many out of attending games, and a similar distance and lack of any meaningful communication with supporters.
In a Premier League almost defined by corporate greed, the Glazers are far from alone in such practices – but the various forms in which United fans have opposed them can offer cricket fans some guidance.
Almost as soon as the takeover was confirmed, a small, though significant, minority of fans chose to break away completely and form their own club, FC United of Manchester. The club is owned and democratically run by its supporters. The club has moved steadily upwards through the non-league pyramid, reaching the FA Cup second round in 2010-11, while attracting an average gate of around 2,000 – comparable to those one or two divisions higher than their current position in English football’s sixth tier.
But while “little United” embodies many ideals that a great deal of Manchester United fans would love to see their club embrace, one person’s principled stand is another’s treachery, and the decision of many FC United fans to turn their back on Manchester United met with far from universal approval.
The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, having previously attempted to fight the takeover from within through their shareholding in the pre-Glazer PLC, adopted a different approach. In 2009 they launched the Green and Gold campaign, the colours being the original ones back when Manchester United were still called Newton Heath. The initial take up of the campaign was enormous, and the message loud and clear – opposition to those in the boardroom, but unquestioning loyalty to the team on the pitch.
For a year or so, Old Trafford became such a sea of green and gold scarves that many opposing fans took to chanting “Are you Norwich in disguise?” The Trust have always been realistic in accepting that 100% fan ownership of a club Manchester United’s size is not a credible proposition, but aimed to partner with a consortium of United-supporting businessmen known as the “Red Knights” to support a buyout which would gave fans a meaningful stake and a permanent voice in the club. But when the bid failed to materialise, the campaign began to run out of steam.
Taking to the air has also been a common theme of recent football fan protest. Fan groups at several clubs in recent years have hired planes carrying banners behind them displaying clear messages of dissatisfaction with managers and club owners alike. Looking abroad, AC Milan fans opposed to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi’s running of their club mounted a similarly clear protest in April 2015. Fans assembled in formation in the Curva Sud to spell out the word “BASTA” – Italian for “enough” – having boycotted some of Milan’s Serie A fixtures earlier in the season.
What can cricket fans learn from football’s example? First and foremost, high visibility is the key to a fan protest. This means, of course, carrying it out in such a way to make it impossible for the mainstream media not to notice. Change Cricket’s admirable silent protest outside the Oval may have received a good degree of coverage, but one inside the ground would have attracted far more attention, from both spectators and media In addition, a symbol of protest like the Green and Gold, easily recognisable and noticeable around the ground, is far harder for the TV cameras to avoid than an isolated group of fans, however committed.
Just as important is fan unity. There is little doubt the Glazers have benefited from the splitting of United fans into factions. Some English cricket fans – including many on this blog – feel so strongly about the ECB’s failings they have taken the ultimate step of withdrawing their support for England.
But such an extreme position has divided opinion and has alienated other fans who consider that it unfairly punishes the players, who in many eyes are largely blameless for the sins of their employers. Similarly, any protest which actually disrupts the game will turn many off and work against what the organisers are trying to achieve.
Finally, the reason why many protest groups in all walks of life ultimately fall by the wayside is failure to offer a credible alternative. Unless their heads are deeper in the sand than the residents of an ostrich farm, the ECB can’t fail to know what we’re against – but we need to be much clearer what we’re for, and demonstrate that our proposals are workable.
A proposal to return at least some cricket to free-to-air TV would be much harder for the ECB to refute if we can show more concretely how it would benefit cricket more widely, and that the likely loss of income compared with Sky’s current exclusive deal can be absorbed without harming the game.
Once again, other sports can be used as a model – rugby union, for example, has found a way by sharing the coverage, with the BBC showing the Six Nations, Sky the autumn internationals and British & Irish Lions tours, and ITV the World Cup. Could a fans’ group try to engage with the sports departments of the major free-to-air broadcasters and come up with an alternative plan for televising cricket?
Over to you …