You’ve got to hand it to Tom Harrison. He wears a suit really nicely. And he can really talk the talk. He’s got a PhD in business speak and drops marketing buzzwords into TV interviews with consummate ease.
Harrison’s no old fart. Will Carling would probably like him. He’s every inch the modern executive and he scrubs up pretty well too. He’s just the sort of man you could see with a beautiful lady on each arm at Ascot.
Because of this, a layman might think he’s the ideal man to grab cricket by the balls and drag it into the modern era. He sounds intelligent and he’s managed to position himself as English cricket’s dynamic reformer. And so he must. After all, domestic cricket’s future pretty much rests in his hands.
But there’s just one problem. What if Harrison is all mouth and no trousers? What if he’s got this one horribly wrong? At the end of the day, Tom Harrison could prove to be just another idiot.
With that in mind, let’s look at the positives and negatives of his T20 crusade to save English cricket.
There’s a chance that city-based franchises will capture the imagination of the general public – that’s people who currently have no interest in cricket – and boost the sport’s profile. This will ultimately lead to larger revenues that can be ploughed back into the grass roots.
What’s more, Harrison has indicated that some franchise matches will be shown on terrestrial television. This is most welcome indeed. Showing cricket on free-to-air television is by far the best way to raise the sport’s profile and thus improve participation levels – far better than any grass roots schemes the ECB has created.
Finally, by introducing a high-profile and all-disco-dancing T20 competition in Blighty, our best white ball specialists might be less inclined to sod off to the IPL every year. This will keep them within the ECB’s orbit whilst simultaneously poking India in the eye (if you think this is a positive).
A shiny new franchise T20 also might, and I stress the word ‘might’, help to modernise the game. The ECB keep referring to ‘the future’ – although they seem to imagine a rather nebulous one in which spectators probably use Bitcoin to bet on cricket – so maybe a new tournament, if marketed correctly, could create what marketing folk call ‘cut-through’.
Nobody knows whether the British public will give two hoots about this new competition. After all, if you’re not interested in football, why would you care if Liverpool, Everton and Tranmere started playing in a new competition under the joint identity ‘The Merseyside Melodramas’? Either you’re interested in football or you’re not. A new completion isn’t going to make much difference.
What’s more, Harrison’s commitment to terrestrial television sounds lukewarm at best.
In an ideal world, I’d like to maximise revenue and reach … I would love to have as much cricket as we could on free to air. But we’re a pay-TV business. We’re underwritten by pay TV. Right now, there aren’t too many alternatives to that, so we have to be smart about how we package and work with our commercial partners to make sure we get that balance right between reach and revenue.
Unfortunately the ECB only wants to show 8 of the 36 scheduled games on terrestrial TV. That’s better than nothing but it’s hardly a game-changer.
This development also leaves me somewhat confused because Colin Graves has always told us that terrestrial TV doesn’t want cricket. Yet now we hear that the BBC might be interested in showing some cricket after all. Well I never.
The other potential problem is that this new city-based competition will cannibalise 50 over cricket, the NatWest Blast (which is actually very popular) and also test cricket. Harrison, of course, has assured us that this won’t happen:
We’ve done an awful lot of work in understanding our county championship audience, our Blast audience, our 50-over audience. What this is designed to do is complement that with a whole new audience that we’re currently not talking to. This is a fantastic opportunity for us to create something that appeals to an entirely new audience and grows cricket’s overall audience.
Eh? Are we supposed to believe that cricket’s 50 over and first class audiences are completely separate? And who or what, exactly, is this whole new untapped audience?
I don’t know about you but I’ve always thought that the UK consists of a single populace – some of whom are interested in sports and some who aren’t. Harrison talks about tapping into a new audience as if there’s a distinct group of people buried five hundred feet below the Earth’s surface – a bit like natural gas – and all he needs to do is build a pipe to reach them.
The truth (I suspect) is that there’s no mythical demographic or low hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked. Just about everyone in the UK knows what cricket is. The problem is that they just don’t give a damn. All Harrison’s really talking about is marketing cricket more aggressively to people who have thus far refused to listen. In which case, why doesn’t he just dress up existing cricket and market it more aggressively? Why do we need a controversial city-based tournament with no heritage to achieve this?
Harrison would do well to learn a few lessons from football. Although I appreciate that football and cricket are different entities, Harrison completely ignores the appeal of history to sports fans:
Why does he think that Manchester United are so popular around the world? It’s because (to a significant extent) the club has such a rich heritage. The club’s a brand that has developed over decades – people have an emotional attachment to the team and it offers a compelling story. Harrison seems to think he can create similarly magnetic cricket brands within a couple of years. I’m afraid it just doesn’t work that way.
As someone who works in advertising and marketing I often judge my creative work according to the “so what?” test. It works like this. Every time we come up with an idea to market a product, we reflect on the selling proposition. In other words, is the offering (as we’ve expressed it) compelling enough not to be ignored? Is it enticing enough or exciting enough to grab someone’s attention or will people just think “so what?” and move on.
I hate to say it, but if I was an ordinary member of the public who had no interest in cricket, and I heard there was a new team up the motorway called ‘The Nottinghamshire Nightmares’ (or something similarly contrived) what would my immediate response be? The words ‘so’ and ‘what’ would probably feature quite prominently.
At the end of the day, I fear that most British people are probably either too smart or too jaundiced to find something as contrived as city-based cricket teams, developed purely by marketing men with the sole aim of making money, particularly appealing. Did you know that the TV companies are going to have a big say in where the new eight teams will play and what they might be called? The word ‘artificial’ just doesn’t cut it.
If you thought I was being negative in the problems section then I think you’d better brace yourself. This is where we’re going to discuss the indisputable drawbacks of Harrison’s T20 vision.
For starters, it has been revealed that the new competition will make a seven figure loss in its first year. That’s right folks, the competition that’s supposed to make millions of pounds and save cricket is actually going to lose millions to begin with. This makes it a gargantuan gamble.
Harrison is basically asking us to take a huge leap of faith. What if things don’t turn around (for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above) and the competition falls on its face? Can cricket afford to lose that much money? The ECB might claim that city T20 will “future-proof” cricket but the reality could easily be the opposite.
I also find it extraordinary that Harrison can argue that city T20 cricket will boost test cricket. How can it? There’s no evidence whatsoever that T20 is a gateway drug. Why does he assume that kids who fall in love with the short form will automatically become enamoured with the long form too? They’re basically completely different games.
The truth is that there’s already far too much cricket (both domestically and worldwide) at the moment. The last thing English cricket – or world cricket in general – needs is another shiny new T20 tournament causing even more fixture congestion.
What’s more, when the IPL started a few years back, observers worried that it would be a distraction from real international cricket; they worried that players would retire somewhat prematurely from test cricket to cash in on the T20 gravy train.
These worries have become something of a reality (especially if you look at the West Indies). And now Tom Harrison wants yet another of these big T20 tournaments, when we already have the IPL and Big Bash, in order to preserve test cricket? It simply doesn’t add up.
The final point I’ll make is that the ECB have surrendered the moral high ground in order to push Harrison’s vision through. The chief executive might claim that he has a mandate for change – as if this process has been democratic and transparent all along – but the reality is very different.
Those who have followed this saga know only too well that many counties have been bullied into this. One county official even used the word ‘coerced’. The ECB are pushing this through by threatening to withhold £6.5 million (received over a five year period) from any county that dissents and tries to block the reforms.
Consequently Tom Harrison has a mandate in the same way that a school bully has a mandate to snatch the nerdy kid’s milk.
I don’t doubt that cricket needs to act if it wants to stay relevant – at least I agree with Harrison on this – but is the radical and extremely polarising implementation of a city-based competition really the best way to do it? Personally I think the negatives and dangers far outweigh the potential rewards.
The crux of the matter is this: Harrison thinks cricket can only survive if it becomes sexier. And he thinks that a city-based competition is the only way to generate this sex appeal. But why? It sounds like a false assumption to me.
Making something sexy is all about presentation. It’s about marketing; therefore the invention of a new competition with new teams probably isn’t necessary and probably isn’t going to make much difference. After all, these teams will still be playing the same sport.
Ask yourself this: would Formula One be any more popular if it dropped the term ‘Grand Prix’, called it something else instead, and then renamed the teams? At the end of the day it’s still cars speeding round a track.
Surely it would be far easier and less risky to rebrand existing competitions (and our existing county teams) and then market them more aggressively? Companies successfully rebrand all the time. And they don’t cannibalise their products, alienate existing customers, and go into debt, whilst doing so.
The only explanation I can think of is that Harrison believes county cricket’s brand is so toxic, and so beyond help, that starting something fresh is the only option. But if that’s the case, why have attendances at the NatWest Blast gone up every year recently? I sense that county cricket isn’t anywhere near as doomed as the ECB think.
Consequently I’m worried. I really am. The above analysis is making me doubt the motives for this new city competition. Does the ECB really want this new tournament to save cricket, or do they want it purely because they’ve seen the success of big T20 tournaments in India and Australia and they’re jealous?
And is Tom Harrison really thinking objectively? As someone with a background in media with direct experience of the IPL, is he implementing these changes because he thinks they’re in the best interests of English cricket or is he subconsciously pursuing a personal ambition?
I’m not suggesting for a second that Harrison is deliberately sabotaging English cricket, but people in general do have a habit of pursuing strategies that suit their own agenda, and then post-rationalising them in a way that convinces everyone (including themselves) they’re doing things for the greater good. We see it in politics all the time.
Basically I just really hope that Tom Harrison is as smart as he is well dressed. Because if he’s not then English cricket is in massive trouble. As Grand Moff Tarkin once said aboard the Death Star: “we’re taking an awful risk Vadar, this had better work”.