When Colin Graves became the ECB chairman back in 2015, when all The Hundred PR disasters were just a glint in an incompetent marketing director’s eye, he spoke about a sense of decline in the English game and the need to “reinvent and rejuvenate” the sport:
I want to leave a legacy for English cricket in that we have improved it, made it more accessible, and more user-friendly … in the past we have had all these different reviews looking at various aspects such as the Schofield Review and the Morgan Review. We won’t be doing any of that any more …
We have got to do something and not just do it the old fashioned way of looking at what the ECB wants. Cricket still has a place in the hearts of the public but we have to work hard so everybody likes to watch it and play it.
He also talked passionately about the need for a new T20 competition to rival the IPL and The Big Bash. Apparently The Blast just wasn’t cutting it:
We have something that works only so far and can be better … we have lost our way a bit in Twenty20.
Graves also identified, quite correctly, that the absence of live cricket on terrestrial television was a massive problem. But there was no solution on the horizon:
It would be nice to have some cricket on terrestrial television but the problem we have got is terrestrial television does not want cricket … I would love to get cricket on terrestrial television in one format or another … but if you have terrestrial broadcasters that don’t want cricket then what can you do?
Fortunately, approximately two years later, Colin Graves’s suave new chief executive Tom Harrison, who had a background in TV rights, came up with a silver bullet to solve two problems at once: an exciting new city-based T20 tournament that would reinvigorate the domestic game plus get some live cricket back on the tele.
This was an enormous coup for the ECB and Graves must have been delighted. The television deal they’d secured was staggering: £1.1 billion for eight domestic T20 games and two T20 internationals on the BBC, plus the usual blanket coverage of England Tests, ODIs, and the remaining T20s on Sky. This eye-watering deal was more than double what they’d achieved during the last broadcast auction in 2012. Pats on the back all round.
Here’s what Harrison said when he proudly announced the deal. He boasted that the new T20 competition would get English cricket exactly where they wanted it to be:
We set out 18 months ago to get a balance of reach and revenue. That was the driver behind the whole process … we are now in a completely different place to where we were in terms of that relationship … it is not just about the money, it is about the belief together we can create a transformed environment for cricket going forward.
The addition of the BBC delivers a multi-pronged approach in the way cricket becomes more accessible through the BBC’s channels and the national broadcaster’s whole operation.
It is a game-changer for cricket in this country. It is a ground-breaking moment for us and we are extremely excited about the potential here for putting cricket in an unbelievably strong place to meet the challenges that every sport faces about being relevant and an exciting choice for people to get involved in in the future.
The message here was clear. The new franchise T20 would be a game-changer. It would revive English cricket. The ECB had found a way to safeguard the future of the game. They even talked about how young people digested media differently these days: the digital clips included in the deal would help cricket to reach a new audience.
It wasn’t long before this ‘reaching a new audience’ narrative became arguably the most important message of all. Here’s what Harrison said about his new T20 competition soon afterwards on cricinfo:
We have to think differently if we’re going to be successful at attracting family audiences to our competitions. We need to change our thinking on that to be relevant to a new generation that responds to big box-office occasions.
This (new T20 competition) is about creating something different … creating something dramatically different for English cricket and for a thriving new audience for English cricket … 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, grows cricket’s overall audience, and enable us to control something that has real value for the long term.
But then something suddenly changed. Even though the new T20 tournament seemed to tick all the ECB’s boxes and meet all of its previously declared objectives, the board suddenly announced in April 2018 that it wouldn’t be a T20 competition after all. It would be a new 100-ball format.
Everyone was puzzled by this move – supporters, players, and even the counties (who had a lot to gain from the competition financially) seemed nonplussed.
And yet, mysteriously, the arguments in favour of the new competition did not change. Indeed, The Hundred PR had a very familiar ring to it. Here’s how Harrison justified the Hundred when they launched the concept:
This is a fresh and exciting idea which will appeal to a younger audience and attract new fans to the game. Our game has a history of innovation and we have a duty to look for future growth for the health and sustainability of the whole game.
And here’s what he told the BBC’s Tuffers & Vaughan show about The Hundred:
It is a huge opportunity if we do things a bit differently to get hold of a much wider audience. It’s an opportunity for us to think slightly differently and present the game in a way. We know there are (people) would be part of this cricket community if we were able to make the game appeal to them in a way we know we can, through presenting it on TV, through digital channels in a different way, getting young people and kids involved in a different way.
It’s amazing how the narrative hadn’t changed one iota – only the format had changed. The ECB were using exactly the same language to promote a very new and very different concept. There was even the same old stuff about digital channels.
The Hundred PR even repeated the same old line that the tournament was necessary to attract a terrestrial broadcaster – even though the above proves this was an egregious lie. The BBC was clearly onboard when the new competition was slated to be a T20. The new Hundred format had nothing to do with it, no matter what Colin Graves disingenuously claimed at the Department Of Culture Media And Sport Committee in October this year.
This whole episode is very curious indeed. Why did the ECB change the format when it simply didn’t need to? Everything was in place for the new project when it was a T20 competition – even the bit about broadcasters being part of the decision making process and having a say in the team-names and locations.
All the groundwork was done back in 2017: the number of teams, the fact these would be new teams not counties, the squad sizes, the number of games, the start date, the fact there will be different salary bands, a player draft, and wildcards picks – all this was in place when the competition was going to be a T20.
The Hundred PR claims, of course, that the ECB changed the format as a result of rigorous research – research they have constantly refused to publish. One wonders, therefore, whether this research was also done with a new T20 tournament in mind?
In the absence of any research appearing in the public domain, the only rationalisation we’ve had that applies specifically to the Hundred was that ill-advised and clumsy intervention by Andrew Strauss last year. Here’s a reminder:
“It’s aimed at mums and kids … what we’re trying to do is appeal to a new audience, people that aren’t traditional cricket fans. We want to make the game as simple as possible for them to understand.”
Unfortunately this narrative was deeply patronising to the target audience. The idea than kids, and especially mums, couldn’t count to six is rather insulting not to mention crazy. After all, who can’t count to six but can count to five? No wonder this ‘simplicity’ narrative has been dropped in recent months.
In its absence, the ECB has resorted to the same old arguments time and again – arguments that only justify the genesis of a new T20 competition not a fourth format of cricket that isn’t played anywhere else in the world.
The problem for Harrison and Graves, of course, is that The Hundred PR is now a much harder sell in 2019 than it would have been when Graves became chairman almost five years ago.
Back in 2015 Graves spoke about a crisis in English cricket. This is why the new T20 franchise competition was apparently necessary. Existing competitions were subtly maligned to convey an image of decline and decay. The picture was one of falling attendances, falling participation, and a sense that county cricket itself was in danger if nothing changed.
In 2019 the ECB are actually launching their new tournament set against a very different backdrop. English cricket is finally growing again. And it’s all happened without The Hundred or indeed any new competition at all. It turns out that the World Cup – finally a taste of live cricket on terrestrial TV – and The Ashes were the shot in the arm that English cricket needed.
This is where Harrison and Graves have finally had to change their previous narrative. Now, instead of arguing that the new competition is there to save English cricket, The Hundred PR has become all about building on this year’s success.
Here’s what Harrison said just two weeks ago at the end of October. It was all about continuing momentum:
The Hundred is an attempt to replicate (the World Cup) and bring it back to our country every year without taking anything away from our precious county environment, to ensure we grow the game of cricket in this country.
We have seen throughout the Cricket World Cup grounds across the country packed to the rafters, 40 per cent of whom were first-time buyers to cricket in this country. The vibrancy, the colours, the noise and energy is something that will live with all of us.
The ECB has also been forced to backtrack when it comes to their existing short-term competition. When asked what’s wrong with The Blast, Harrison has now admitted:
absolutely nothing, it has been a phenomenal format which has an amazing role. It’s a fantastic format with eight consecutive years of growth and we are continuing to invest.
So much for ‘mediocre’ and arguing that T20 cricket in our country had lost its way.
In effect, therefore, The Hundred has essentially become a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist anymore. And the new format itself, as demonstrated above, wasn’t needed to achieve the EBC’s objectives anyway.
So what on earth is the point of the whole thing? One can only guess. Supporters of The Hundred argue that its money is needed to keep counties afloat but this simply isn’t the case.
The truth is that most counties are solvent (partly due to the success of The Blast) and only approximately three or four are struggling. What’s more, there was plenty of money available to help struggling counties out before The Hundred came along. English cricket has been very profitable in recent times.
The only thing that threatens cricket’s financial future is actually The Hundred itself. The project is costing far more than the ECB initially anticipated – which is presumably why Harrison refused to talk about its budget at the DCMS committee – and it’s expected to lose millions in its first few years (if it lasts that long). For the first time in a long time, the ECB had to change its central contracts cycle amidst rumours of cashflow issues.
So once again I ask you. What is the point of the Hundred? It wasn’t to get cricket back on terrestrial television (we’ve proved that wasn’t the case), and it can’t be to make cricket simper either (because it doesn’t). The reality is that it’s a massive financial gamble that’s puts a profitable sport at risk.
The bottom line is this. Whatever argument one could make in favour of The Hundred, that argument would equally apply to a T20 competition. Indeed, every coherent argument the ECB has put forward to justify the new format was previously made when The Hundred was expected to be T20 competition.
Unfortunately cricket supporters are still waiting to hear one single plausible argument as to why a fourth format of the game is required. The Hundred PR machine has had plenty of opportunity to tell us but it can’t.
Therefore, at this point, we have to assume that there isn’t one. Sadly it feels very much like a sugar-fuelled vanity project.
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