The Long Ball Tactic

Non-football: You never give me your money

Posted in Non-football by mike on November 13, 2009

International weekend – forgive me if I turn my attention to cricket for a second.

Outrage was the order of the day today as the government are advised that home Ashes internationals should be on free-to-air television. Amongst the main dissenters are the England and Wales Cricket Board who claim they will be forced to sack 23,000 coaches due to the decision and warn of English county sides going bankrupt. Worrying times, I’m sure, for all concerned.

But, hang on. I remember home test series being on terrestrial television quite recently(not just home Ashes games, every home test series). So is the ECB saying that cricket could be catapulted back to the dark days of the early 2000s? During crickets last terrestrial run (on Channel Four from 1999-2005) we saw England go from being the worst test side in the world to regaining the Ashes. At it’s peak almost nine million of us were watching the 2005 Ashes, that was a 47% share of the television audience at that time. The peak audience for this years Ashes series (shown only on Sky Sports) was 1.9 million.

But it’s not the test side that we need worry about in the short-term. What the ECB warn of immediately is the lack of support for grass roots cricket. When England won the Ashes in 2005 the ECB stated that now was the time to get cricket’s ‘grass roots’ thriving and to get more children playing the game. The plan to achieve this goal, drawn up with ECB chief executive David Collier, went something like this:

-sell exclusive TV rights to Sky

– reduce TV audience by almost 7 million.

Maybe they used most of the money to helped local cricket clubs (although you can bet that they didn’t), but if the national game is broadcast to smaller audiences how do they hope to attract the sort of young people who might join these local clubs? Both Collier and ECB chairman Giles Clarke (the 348th richest man in the country) have years of experience in business, whereas I have none, but how can you promote something whilst simultaneously cutting it’s audience by 78.4%?

You can only hope that the money they took from Sky went into reinvigorating a shaky county cricket system. After all, these clubs are apparently facing bankruptcy if the 2016 Ashes isn’t show on satellite TV. Unfortunately, from what I can see, the only major change to the county system in the last 15 years has been the introduction of a pointless two-tier promotion and relegation system (brought in in 2000, when test cricket was still on terrestrial TV). Since then there have been rumours that the game would become more regionalised and the season would end in a playoff between the best teams from each region. Obviously, nothing has come of this and the ECB have no plans to even review the current county system until after the 2013 season.

With this seemingly weakening form of the game dying in their hands with declining audiences, both on TV and at the grounds, the ECB have been forced to help out county sides by either accepting £3m ‘donations’ and giving grounds test and one-day games in return or by giving them £1.5m hand-outs each year.  These annual ‘grants’ are where the ECB are worried they will be affected most by the Sky money. However, someone (and it probably will be Sky) will still be paying money to broadcast cricket. By my (conservative) reckoning 8 teams may have no tests or one-day games at their grounds after 2013, so will require the £1.5m handout. That is £12m. Do the ECB really think they won’t be able to find £12m a year after 2013 to stop these teams going bankrupt?

This is without taking into consideration the money that Clarke and Collier look to make from time to time by exploring other avenues of revenue offered by the Twenty20 game. In fact the ECB execs did not greatly impress the counties they now claim to be so concerned about when they courted money from the now-under-arrest American billionaire Allen Stanford. When the deal was struck with the clearly dodgy Stanford, the Guardian quoted one county chairman as saying:

“Clarke is a clown and a pompous one, and David Collier is a poor chief executive. There is no plan. No strategy. Everything is done off the hoof. Clarke should go.””

My own thoughts on all of this are that, looking ahead pessimistically, the ECB have done barely anything to improve the county game and boost cricket audiences in general. In the future, if the county game does falter and we start to see teams go bankrupt, the fact that there is slightly less TV money coming in may be an all-too-easy excuse for the ECB to use to mask their own incompetence. In the mean time, they’re more than happy to take the most amount of money from whoever offers it, even if it means less people are watching the game they claim to promote.

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