The book has been written, apparently. The Hundred, a bit like Welsh Fire themselves, took on ‘the haters’ and secured a comprehensive victory against all the odds. Stakeholders like Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen, plus the entire Sky and BBC commentary teams have declared, in George W. Bush fashion, that the mission was accomplished. The ECB’s new tournament was a runaway success, they claim, and therefore they were right all along.
As for those haters – the dinosaurs and luddites who are so impervious to change that they’ll only ever accept an antiquated county system – well, they’ve been left with copious quantities of egg on their face. It doesn’t matter that shrewder judges like Mike Atherton have pointed out that the Hundred can only be judged in five years time when its full impact on the domestic game and our Test and ODI sides can be analysed.
So let’s all just slow down and take a breath. Let’s also correct a few fallacies about opponents of The Hundred and why they opposed it. After all, most of us have wanted some kind of reform for years. We just didn’t think The Hundred was the best kind of change for several sincere and well-intentioned reasons.
The presence of some younger faces in the crowds wasn’t a dagger to the critics’ hearts. It was a joy. We’ve been droning on about getting cricket back on terrestrial television for 15 years. This is precisely the reason why. You reach a new audience by showing the game to a broader proportion of the population. That’s what free to air was made for. In that respect, perhaps the ECB’s longstanding critics should feel vindicated today.
We’re also pleased that approximately 500,000 people, many of whom were apparently new to cricket, attended the games. It’s also good news that a peak audience of 2.4 million watched the Hundred final. Most of us never doubted that cricket could appeal to a wider audience. After all, if we bloody love the game then why can’t others? Our concern was always the collateral damage that The Hundred will inevitably cause.
Although many say that The Hundred can’t possibly have damaged the England Test team because it’s been in decline for years, they’re ignoring the fact that the Hundred is just the latest (and highest profile) manifestation of the ECB white ball bias. Everything has led to this moment. The Hundred is now here to stay – an immovable object slap bang in the middle of the calendar at the height of summer – and it’s hard to see how the championship can be accommodated in an already jampacked calendar moving forward.
Some say they should run first class cricket concurrently with The Hundred but this is surely a non-starter. Players find it extremely difficult to switch formats and back again in short periods of time. Therefore, it’s impossible to see anything other than a championship programme shorn of its best players. The quality would therefore be diminished and it would serve as no preparation for Test cricket. The RLODC ran alongside The Hundred this year, remember, and that was seriously devalued.
So is this price worth paying? Now it’s time to delve down into the statistics. After all, I’m not so sure that the ECB’s figures are the triumph that many claim. Whilst a total attendance of 500,000 seems like a big number, don’t forget that nearly one million people attended T20 Blast games in 2019. If the intention is to grow the game, then it’s clearly better to have seven figures attending 18 different venues across the land than half that figure attending just 7 urban centres? Some claim that Hundred spectators were ‘additional’ cricket viewers. But I’m not convinced. People don’t always have limited funds, or time, to attend multiple games. Some cannibalisation is surely inevitable?
What’s more, that 2.4 million TV figure was actually a tad underwhelming when put into context. The T20 against Pakistan was watched by 2.7 million. And when the BBC Tokyo Olympics highlights show only attracted 2.7 million one day (viewership was half that achieved in Rio) it was considered a massive concern.
But let’s, for the sake of this discussion, stick to the cricket. A massive 8.3 million watched the ODI World Cup final on Sky and C4 combined two years ago. Indeed, 4.5 million watched on C4 alone, even though this was arranged at the very last minute. Meanwhile, over 8 million watched the Ashes in 2005. The 2.4 million for The Hundred final therefore doesn’t look so impressive.
Some might argue that this isn’t a fair comparison because those other games were internationals whereas The Hundred final was a domestic fixture. However, I think the unprecedented marketing budget levels the playing field here. What’s more, The Hundred was advertised by Gary Lineker during the Euro Final between England and Italy at half-time. That’s a huge advantage – an advert to over 20 million sports fans for free.
Nevertheless, I tried to find a domestic comparison – which is obviously hard because there has been no domestic cricket on FTA television since, what, the late 1990s? What I unearthed isn’t perfect, because it was Sky’s audience for Blast finals day in 2015. This was a worrying low that the ECB used to try and justify their franchise project. Circa 388k (overall audience) watched that occasion on Sky. I read that the Hundred final was watched by approximately 350k on Sky. They can’t be pleased with that, surely? Sky’s audiences for Test matches in the past have been significantly higher.
So do these figures represent success? I’m unsure. Whilst the boost to the women’s game was indisputably welcome (and an unqualified success for them) I imagine that behind closed door’s the ECB will have mixed feelings about the success of the men’s event. They’ll be relieved that the event wasn’t a disaster, which at least enables them to pretend it was a triumph, but I imagine they were hoping for more.
What’s indisputable, however, is that these figures would’ve been so much better had the ECB adopted a less controversial plan for returning the game to terrestrial television. Millions more would’ve tuned in had the Hundred not received such a poor press (by those who didn’t have vested interest in the competition’s success, of course). It would also have been better supported by existing fans if didn’t damage first class cricket and by extension the England test team. This has been my main beef all along, although I’m also, especially as a Worcestershire supporter, worried about the long-term consequences for smaller counties. This is a concern to hundreds of thousands.
Whether the Hundred was ‘a success’ or not therefore shouldn’t be the main focus. The main point everyone seems to be missing (while they argue over the figures) is that the ECB’s aim to grow the game and reach a new audience could have been achieved in numerous ways. But the ECB chose possibly the most destructive way possible – a way that actually hamstrung, or limited, the impact of cricket’s long awaited return to free-to-air television. It’s the collateral damage that’s the problem. Had they chosen a route that was collateral damage free (or at least minimised) then a better outcome, or an even better outcome depending on one’s perspective, was surely guaranteed?
Had the ECB actually considered the impact of their new vision on Joe Root’s team (who are currently staring down the barrel of four series defeats in a row with the worst batting line up in living memory) then so many more people would’ve been onboard. Hell, even I would’ve been onboard and used this very blog to help spread the word if the ECB adopted a sensible and sensitive plan to bring cricket back to the masses – something I’ve always wanted, of course.
As a marketing man by trade, I know the power of word of mouth. Imagine how successful The Hundred would’ve been if all (or even most) county cricket supporters were behind it. “Check out this new competition” we would’ve said. Instead, what we’ve got is a game divided like never before. And we’ve had huge swathes of supporters actively slagging off and boycotting the event. It was a totally unnecessary own goal.
I will never understand why the ECB shoehorned something through that even the counties were extremely sceptical about, although they eventually realised (those that weren’t coerced) that it was a dangerous game to anger Colin Graves. Remember when he threatened to exclude Surrey when they raised concerns? The whole scheme seemed devious and authoritarian. And it’s alienated thousands of cricket supporters along the way.
The Hundred really should’ve been cricket’s big moment. We can all argue about how big this moment actually proved to be. But what’s indisputable, surely even to the competition’s most ardent advocates, is that it should have been bigger. They could’ve got closer to the World Cup final’s 8.3m rather than a quarter of it. But the ECB, in typical fashion, bungled it.
Now we have to wait and see how badly they’ve bungled it or whether the inherent brilliance of cricket, and the benefits of finally getting the sport back on television (albeit a decade too late), can mask their failings.