It’s time to “come together” for the greater good. It’s time to rally behind a plan – the only plan on the table.
Sounds like Theresa May’s Brexit pitch doesn’t it? But actually this was pretty much the message conveyed by the gruesome twosome, Tom Harrison and Colin Graves, as the ECB launched their strategy document for 2020 to 2024 on Monday.
So what exactly is their plan? It’s not unlike the Maybot’s strategy really. Talk everything up but leave the detail to later. Much later.
Now unfortunately cricket doesn’t really have a James O’Brien, Iain Dale, or even a Nish Kumar to dissect the plan and really put it under the microscope; therefore I guess it’s left to ordinary supporters like me.
So here’s my interpretation of the strategy document’s key points. I hope you’re wearing your sarcasm protection vest.
Firstly the ECB believes that cricket is facing three key challenges because apparently the game is (a) too long (b) too complex, and (c) too inaccessible. This is why they’ve proposed The Hundred – although they haven’t actually got an official name for it yet. Games will be over in just two hours, plus they’ll finally be on terrestrial TV! Woohoo! More on that later.
First of all let’s challenge the false assumption that cricket is too long. I’ve talked about the rising popularity of the Tour de France before (which goes on for over twenty days) so let’s choose a new example to prove the ECB are nuts. I’ll alight on the NFL.
American football has become very popular in the UK over the last ten years or so. It’s now watched by more people than many traditional British sports. It’s also by far the most watched sport in the USA.
I’m not sure how many of you follow NFL but games last almost three and a half hours and the sport’s incredibly strategic and complicated. Try telling NFL fans that the game’s too long and complex.
And then we come to the accessibility issue. Since locking live cricket behind a pay-wall in 2006, cricket has clearly become inaccessible to most of the country. But this was entirely self-inflicted.
Fear not. The Hundred will cure all. Why? Because in their wisdom the ECB are bringing cricket back to the BBC. Pats on the back all round.
Well, not quite actually. Putting a handful of games on the BBC (whilst keeping the vast majority hidden behind a pay-wall) is like deliberately slashing your wrists for years only to congratulate yourself when you finally stop. What’s more, you haven’t really stopped. You’re still going to spend most of your time slashing your wrists – just not all the time.
Harrison also claimed on Monday that The Hundred is the thing facilitating this long overdue return to terrestrial TV:
We would not be on free-to-air TV without that new competition and we would not have the premium that we got through the media rights process had that competition not been there.
There’s just one problem with this analysis. I find it disingenuous. Free-to-air television has always retained interest in live cricket but not for the huge price the ECB wanted (and got) from Sky. Why would Sky have paid so much for its exclusivity for the last 14 years if no other channels were interested? Let’s remember that BT Sport (Sky’s main pay-TV rival) is a relatively new enterprise.
Let’s take ourselves back to 2006 when the ECB turned its back on terrestrial TV. Channel 4 wanted to retain the coverage but were blown out of the water. Here’s what they said:
Channel 4 made a full and substantial offer to try to retain the live rights to test cricket and to ensure that fans would still be able to watch the England cricket team free of charge. We were bidding as much per game this time as under the terms of the last deal, but we’ve still been substantially outbid by Sky … We hope the ECB does not come to regret its decision to turn its back on the hundreds of hours of terrestrial exposure that Channel 4 was offering.
The return of some (very limited) cricket to terrestrial TV suggests that the ECB might now regret giving Sky its monopoly. Yes Sky’s coverage is excellent, and their money has been very useful for the board, but taking the money was rather short-term thinking. After all, if cricket was on terrestrial TV then sponsorship deals would be worth more and the game would be higher profile. Revenue would have come from other sources.
Then we move on to the concerns traditional cricket fans (that’s us I think) have about the direction the sport is moving – especially when it comes to The Hundred. Apparently our concerns are all based on myths. That’s right folks. Harrison did what he called a little “myth-busting” on Monday.
Even though Andrew Strauss and Eoin Morgan said that The Hundred was for mums and kids rather than existing supporters, apparently we’ve all got the wrong end of the stick. Apparently it’s for kids AND us white middle-class boring old existing cricket fans.
This is classic spin. You say one thing, get ridiculed, and then pretend you actually said something else, whilst implying that it’s everyone else’s fault for misunderstanding. Clever, eh?
Another apparent myth is the concern that The Hundred – or whatever it’s going to be called – is costing a lot. After all, 180m smackers over 5 years is a king’s ransom. But there’s no need to worry apparently. According to Harrison the TV rights package (of which The Hundred is a part) is so huge that the competition is already making a profit.
Well that’s ok then. Except that it isn’t. The costs for the tournament have already doubled and if The Hundred flops then English cricket will be in deep poop. Obviously he didn’t mention that.
But that will surely never happen, right? With the fans on-board it will be plain sailing. Even the players have warmed to the idea:
I think new players will really want to test their ability in a format of the game which we think will provide more pressure at those key moments in games.
Excuse my cynicism here but the above is nonsense. The players will come because they’ll be paid handsomely to do so. And – prepare yourself for a shocking revelation here – professional athletes quite like money. And who can blame them?
Next we come to the scheduling congestion and the potential for cricket overkill. Again we need not worry. The very popular T20 Blast will coexist alongside The Hundred easily because < insert drumroll > the cricket market has room for growth!
Obviously this is crap. All markets arguably have room for growth. Even the market for cigarettes in western countries arguably has room for growth. The actual question is whether the market will actually grow. And it’s incredibly difficult to build demand if there’s already too much of something about.
We keep reading that the ECB are introducing The Hundred to emulate (or even out-do) the IPL and the Big Bash. The lesson from the latter, however, is that you can indeed have too much of a good thing. Cricket Australia recently increased the number of matches and the tournament’s popularity slid for the first time.
Anyway less of the reality and back to the fantasy. We must now discuss the county championship – the event that means more to most traditional cricket fans than anything else. According to Harrison the domestic first class competition is still the ECB’s “blue ribbon event”.
Pull the other one, Tom. The Championship is the ECB’s priority in the same way that a prize garden gnome that’s put on display in April and September, but then hidden away for those high summer BBQ parties, is a homeowner’s prized asset. If the Championship was the board’s priority then there would be far more championship cricket scheduled for weekends, bank holidays and other times when, you know, people are actually free to watch it.
What a shame that The Hundred – which Harrison claims is simply designed to do “a certain job at a certain part of the season” – is going to marginalise first class cricket further. After all, by “a certain job at a certain part of the season” what he really means is “raise shit loads of dosh during the best part of the season”.
Talking of money there’s apparently loads of it for the counties by the way. They’ll get the princely sum of £450m to share in direct funding. So that’s why they voted for the idea. Make sure those turkeys enjoy a five star spa experience before they head off to the slaughterhouse, eh.
And then we come to Sky again. The ECB obviously have to thank Sky for injecting so much money into the coffers. In fact, moving forward Sky will apparently take a more active role and become less of a broadcaster and more of a strategic partner. This prospect has Harrison salivating.
When addressing the fact that live cricket will now be shown on both satellite and terrestrial television Harrison boasted that “In terms of scale and reach, it’s a powerful combination that we haven’t been able to talk about before.”
This would be a good point if it were true. But obviously it’s not. Everyone knows that cricket used to be shown on both subscription and free-to-air television in the 1990s. England’s home games were on the BBC and the winter tours on Sky. It was a pretty good balance really. And it seemed to work ok. I wonder what happened to that arrangement?
Finally – and this bit had me in stitches – Harrison promised to do more to shed cricket’s middle-class image and it’s “curious tag of elitism and privilege”. As if!
This is the governing body that made Waitrose its primary sponsor, approached the poshest journalist in the land to become its National Selector, sold out to an expensive satellite broadcaster, sets sky high ticket prices (especially in London) that ordinary families cannot afford, and whose former chairman once praised Alastair Cook because he was from “the right sort of family”.
Good luck with that one, Tom. One suspects you’ll need a lot of luck with most of it.