Could your county club go bust?

Leicestershire CCC are seemingly at risk of going under. It was reported yesterday that the Grace Road club made a loss of £404,862 in the 2010 season, leaving them with liabilities of £233,717. Loss and debts are nothing new for counties, but this time the language is getting darker. Their auditors Thomas May & Co went as far as to say that “these conditions … indicate the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast doubt about the club’s ability to continue as a going concern”.

Who else might soon be in trouble? Are you worried about your own county’s finances? For most of us, the economics of English domestic cricket are a complete mystery. Put simply, it works like this. The England team make all the money, around two thirds of which comes from Sky’s TV contract. Once the ECB pay their marketing and PR agency bills, and the players, they divide the surplus between the eighteen counties. This in turn is paid to their expensively-salaried overseas players – as anonymous South Africans don’t come cheap. For actual running costs, the clubs theoretically rely on gate receipts. As the Championship generate a combined revenue of around £15 a year (£7.50 for each of the two men, and the dog goes in free), they’ve become so reliant on T20 that every year another 325 fixtures are added to the tournament.

In short, too many counties are living on the never-never. It’s not only a football problem.

No-one wants to see Leicestershire go out of business, with all the trauma and redundancies that would involve. But their plight only reinforces the arguments of those who contend that we have at least four counties too many. It’s long been felt that the playing talent and supporter base are spread too thinly. And now it seems there’s not enough money to go around either.

What’s the story at your club? Are you scared? Or are you prepared to volunteer your own county as a sacricifical lamb – to be merged or declassified for the greater good? And how have they spent their cash? Have you been concerned at money apparently frittered away on expensive  imports or swanky conference facilities which never get used? All views welcome.

Maxie Allen


  • There’s a case for making the CC a three division competition, with the third division dropping to more of a semi-pro status, and concentrating as much of the English talent into the top six teams to create a real elite level of domestic cricket. It will never happen if it’s voluntary, but financial pressure might see its creation.

    It would be a great tragedy for whichever clubs get the chop, though.

    (as a side note, I think most of the counties probably rely on wealthy benefactors to survive)

    • I think you might be right Tristan. My club Worcs have also struggled financially – especially with all the flooding at New Road.

      It’s an interesting point that the supporter base might be spread too thinly, but I’m not sure the abolition of Worcs (for example) would increase the crowds at Warwickshire. I think people in Worcs would simply gravitate to watching more club cricket.

      It would be interesting to see whether crowds in an elite division would be much higher than they are now. I’d like to think they would, but county cricket just isn’t sexy. Perhaps a new marketing campaign is required …. plus a calendar/schedule that makes more sense – and makes matches more meaningful.

      • Well, that’s part of the point of concentrating the best English players into 4 – 6 teams. It might create a standard of cricket worth watching, which would also (hopefully) produce better players for the national side.

        One of the problems with CC is the standard is often too low and, with the England players always absent, whether they want to be or not, there are too few players in each match you really look forward to seeing.

        I’ll still pay my MCCC membership, of course, and I’ll see you in the Lord’s bar. ;)

  • Yes, is the answer to that.

    One of the curiosities of English cricket is that there isn’t much of a connection between wealth and success. Some boffin with too much time on their hands worked out that you can more of less predict the end of season table positions for English football’s top two leagues merely by looking at the aggregate squad wage bills. The more you pay out, the more successful you are. Not so cricket. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked about the game.

    Only recently I’ve started to get a little worried about the domestic set up – I’m not certain it is sustainable. Pretty obvious stuff:

    1. Few go to Championship matches, there are far too many draws and “meaningless” matches and the average age of the crowd is 98.

    2. Some of the first class cricket is well below par.

    3. There’s massive dependence on Sky money (and they’re trying to claw some of it

    4. There’s no cricket on free to air TV; where’s the next generation of fans coming from?

    I’m beginning to think the unthinkable. Do we have too many counties for the game to sustain financially and talent wise – i.e. spreading too thin? If we reduce the number of first class counties, which ones are going to volunteer to be sacrificial lambs? The answer to the last question is no one is going to volunteer.

    Much as I would like it to carry on the way it always has, I don’t think it will. There’s going to be a crisis up ahead and probably soon. I suspect it will be caused by Sky paying less than they have previously and the ECB reducing the size of its grants. If that happens it’s likely to be the financially weakest that go to the wall. This would mean if you live in one region of the country you may find there are no first class counties, in another there may be 2 or 3. The order of the jungle.

    Or do we add an extra layer of cricket and bring in regions? The latter has the advantage that the counties continue to function though at a lower level, feeding talent into the regional teams. Perhaps a county knock out cup competition could be introduced, ideally on free to view telly.

    It’s not about money; it’s about sustainability – and maintaining first class cricket and a strong England team.

  • How about members of the England squad being available for their counties (or regional teams) for the duration of a domestic T20 competition – perhaps packed into 3 weeks? Plus a few overseas stars. I’m not a great T20 fan but it would be a money spinner for the counties and should attract the youngsters.

  • Lots of interesting thoughts there Jon. It would certainly be a great advantage to have England players turn out for their counties more – and a defined set period is probably the best way.

    I can’t see how a depletion of the number of counties will ever happen, because the counties *are* the ECB. They (with MCC) elect the chairman and must ratify all big decisions. The ECB is essentially a private club which acts in its own interests.

    • I don’t think you will get rid of any counties, but it’s possible you may get some relegated to a lesser role. If some clubs neared bankruptcy, the ECB could push through pretty much whatever it liked as part of a rescue package.

      I don’t think they will, though. I don’t think there’s the desire among the upper echelons of the ECB or the counties.

    • Agreed, the counties are the ECB and no county will vote to leave the top table.

      My point is that the current set-up is probably economically unsustainable, so doing nothing will not preserve the staus quo. Change of some sort lies ahead whether we like it or not. It is a question of whether it is planned or some sort of major crisis.

      Even with the current hefty income from Sky many counties are near the edge; when less money is available some counties may not be financially viable or able to service their debt. I wouldn’t assume wealthier counties will jeopardise their own future by voting more money to those in trouble.

      • Worth remembering, though, that the county system has been financially unsustainable for fifty years, and a number of counties have been scraping along just avoiding bankruptcy for just as long, yet very little has changed.

        Being on the verge of catastrophe is, essentially, the status quo.

  • There is something in what you say, THA!

    Though I’d argue the differnece is that many counties have taken out huge mortgages so the level of debt is of a different order and there is huge dependence on Sky.

  • Interesting debate having just read all the comments in one go. It leads me to an interesting summary:

    Nothing will change as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. However, it is clear that the counties need a successful England team as it is jewel in the crown that the ECB want to pay for (plus the T20). As such the schedule will be fitted around sky (hence games starting at all different times of the week).

    However, that logic of all suggest that plenty of money is being wasted to keep unsustainable business afloat and that fewer teams would be a good idea (and thereby drive up standards of play). I have played a lot of cricket with county players (some at the start and some at the end of their career or the never-quiet-made its) and the worrying thing is that very few of them really worried me (though bowling at the Kiwi Neil Parlane wasn’t pleasant) which suggests that standards do need driving up!

    What worries me is that if you did make these changes – few team (and fewer games?) – that while the standard rise would it bring in more punters and more money?

    • Yes, I’ve had similar experiences – players who’ve played county cricket but hardly stood out from club players, people who didn’t play – like Farran Defreitas – who were awesome (although he had financial reasons for not playing).

      Anyone who watched Middlesex last year will have noted how some very limited players get county contracts. Some CC games are shockingly low quality. Decent players are spread too thin, and too many of the good ones aren’t eligible for the national side (not ours, anyway).

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  • Get some cricket back on free-to-air TV; the home Ashes – or at least a T20 cup competition or some such!

    I once read that “Premiership football was the crack cocaine of pay TV”. My feeling is that Sky money is the crack cocaine of English domestic cricket. Sorry if that’s offensive to Sky, I don’t mean to be, it just happens to be them that have the TV monopoly. What I mean is that 100% pay TV is an easy fix, but will lead to long-term decline.

    Perhaps we have to pray that the BBC, Virgin and BT will enter the cricket bidding rights auction and the TV rights can be sold off in chunks – some free-to-air. Otherwise there is a serious danger that cricket will become an elite sport with tiny audiences – like rowing.

    That’s probably about my lot on this one – I’m starting to chase my tail!

  • Completely agree re the Sky money. As you say, the danger is two-fold: the decline of the core audience, and over-reliance on an unsustainably inflated subsidy. When no one else bids for the cricket, Sky won’t need to pay nearly so much. Why couldn’t the BBC take an interest rather than spending their money on Formula One?

  • How many kids would watch Manchester United if it had to be explained that Wayne Rooney never played for them and that half the players on the pitch were foreigners but not even internationals? Unless some balance is struck between international fixtures and the domestic game county cricket its doomed.

  • Too much CC played in April and September. In English weather that makes it unwatchable.

    Too few top class players playing in it

    What would really tempt me back is a nice day in June/July watching CC with England players involved from grass banks instead of plastic seats.

    What’s the chances of that?

  • Some fantastic points and thanks to everyone for taking the time to join the discussion – we really appreciate.

    MickGJ nails it on the England players. Why spend £60 taking your kids along to a county game to see 22 players they’ve never heard of before? You do want to see at least a dusting of international players. How to strike that balance is a tricky one, as it comes down partly to international calendars – but a good start would be doing away with totally pointless ODI series, such as last summer’s 5 matches here against Australia.

    @James – the bigger point here is outgrounds. The bigger counties have all but done away with playing at local club grounds, as they need to squeeze every penny of revenue they can out of their own ground. But wouldn’t you rather be one of 1,000 spectators in a ground which seats 1,200 (and sitting on the grass) or one of 1,000 spectators all spread across the 29,000 seats of Lord’s?


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