In an exclusive, in-depth interview on what just happened to be his 50th birthday, Neil Snowball tells Deep Extra Cover‘s Terry Wright about his early impressions of Edgbaston and his plans for the Bears. He gives a fascinating insight into what it’s like to be in charge of a Test Match stadium and a major county club.
DEC: You’ve been at Edgbaston since January. Is there anything so far that’s surprised you?
Neil Snowball: There’s a couple of positive things. Having looked from the outside in, I’ve always admired Warwickshire and thought that it had proud traditions and was a well-run club. But when I came here, I was really taken with the level of pride about the club. It’s so strong, through everyone I’ve met, the staff, the players, the coaches and the members. Everyone says the same: “proud to be a Bear”. I think that’s wonderful. You can’t buy that kind of culture and history.
The other thing is the attitude of city leaders in Birmingham, just how important Edgbaston and Warwickshire are to them. And that’s one of the things coming in that I talked to [Club Chairman] Norman Gascoigne about. We obviously have a crucial relationship with Birmingham Council and so how do we make more of this? It helps that they are unbelievably supportive. They want to use us to promote Birmingham and they want Birmingham to promote Edgbaston and Warwickshire so that has been a pleasant surprise.
DEC: What are the elements of your past experience that will be most relevant to the Chief Executive job?
NS: I’ve had the opportunity and the privilege to work on two major global events in the last 10 years – the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup. So as we look ahead to our major match days – Test Matches, T20 Finals Day, Champions Trophy next year and the World Cup in 2019 – the major event experience I’ve got can be applied to Edgbaston. We talk about being the best cricket business in the world, one of the best international grounds, and we talk a lot about the customer experience. I hope that I can bring quite a bit of experience to bear.
I think that on the actual performance side, again, I’ve had the privilege of seeing many of the top sports men and women in the world prepare to compete. If you look at the Olympics, I’ve seen not just individuals but how sports as a whole train. Having had to provide all the training facilities for lots of sports, it’s given me a unique insight into how they prepare. And with the Rugby World Cup, it was a real privilege to be able to spend time with the All Blacks and with Australia at close quarters and see how as teams they go about things.
The third element is on the business side, running this great stadium. It’s the first time I’ve been responsible for day-to-day running. I’ve usually been on the other side where I’m going in and taking over someone else’s venue. But I think that having seen how venues operate and how the business side operates I can bring some expertise to make sure that we’re running Edgbaston Stadium to the best of our ability.
Those are the 3 areas that strike a chord the most. Plus, in my eight years at Goldman Sachs I obtained a very solid grounding in business. I did quite a lot of building developments there, so that will put me in good stead because we’ve got to complete the land development around Edgbaston Stadium.
DEC: You mentioned the excellent relationship with Birmingham City Council. How does that play into the £20 million debt that the club owes to the Council?
NS: I think the Council genuinely see it as an investment. It is a loan; but it’s also an investment in Birmingham and they are very comfortable with that and with the repayment terms we’ve agreed. With all the uncertainty at the moment, I’d rather owe that money to the Council than to a bank because we could have some choppy waters ahead of us. So I think it’s a positive relationship and the reality is that if we hadn’t taken on that debt we wouldn’t have what we’ve got here at the stadium; and we wouldn’t be looking down the line at 35 days of major match-day cricket in the next three years. So it was a significant undertaking for the club but it was the right thing to do and I would say that it’s a relatively friendly debt compared with others.
DEC: Is there any progress on the naming rights for the stadium?
NS: There’s definitely progress. I’ve met with a couple of the companies we’ve been talking to. Gareth Roberts, our Commercial Director, is leading on that; we’re working with an agency to help us and we’ve got some really exciting options.
I’ve got a pragmatic view. If we can find the right company wanting to do it for the right reasons and wanting to invest the right amount of money, then it’s worth doing. It’s not something we are going to do just for the sake of it, for a quick fix. We’re not in that position now. Our corporate partner programme is very strong so we’ll only do it if it’s the right deal to be done.
The other thing is, we continue to talk to Birmingham City Council about how we can make the most of our association with them. At the Rugby World Cup each of the venues had locator boards telling the rest of the world about the location. So at Brighton, where we had the momentous South Africa v Japan game, all the post protectors had Brighton on them and it’s become a huge deal in Japan. Brighton has had an influx of Japanese tourists. So what we’re looking at with the ECB and with Birmingham is how we can make more of the Birmingham presence.
DEC: Regarding the future of county cricket, in the press release about the changes just announced for 2017, ECB Chairman Colin Graves said that county cricket has to be sustainable. What would be your interpretation of sustainable?
NS: Very good question. My definition coming from a business background is that if you’re solvent financially, you can stay afloat. There are certain counties that struggle to do that. It’s clear that for a number of years, the ECB have been underpinning county cricket and you could say that’s right, that’s their job. I think Colin Graves is meaning that they can’t keep giving payouts to counties to keep them afloat. How do you balance the books? One way is to look at T20. As we all know, whether you love T20 or hate T20, it’s a very important part of the future of the game and in many ways is the cash cow that financially supports the rest of the game. So Colin and Tom Harrison, the ECB Chief Executive, both feel, as we do at Edgbaston, that the T20 competition has to evolve and be up there with IPL and the Big Bash. We’re a bit off the pace at the moment so we’re missing out on an opportunity.
DEC: So does that mean a city-based franchise system in a few years’ time?
NS: I’m not keen on the franchise word. If you think of it like an American style franchise, you’ve got a wealthy businessman or woman who basically buys a team. I honestly don’t see that happening. Whether you’re looking at city-based teams or more of a regional thing, that might be the way forward. I’m slightly torn.
I’ve had two meetings so far with all of the Chief Executives – going back to surprises, I was pleasantly surprised at how collaborative the meetings were. Certainly amongst us all there is a genuine belief that change needs to take place but that we don’t need to rush into it for the sake of doing it; that we need to look at it. There was a distinct differential between the views of the Chief Executives of the category A grounds and the category C grounds, but there was a sense of collaboration that was refreshing and not, to be honest, what I was expecting.
In terms of where we go from here, again, I’m slightly torn. Part of me loves the fact that on 20 May, all 18 counties know they’ve got a chance of getting to Birmingham, to Finals Day and winning the Trophy. That’s a wonderful thing to have, whereas if you go to two divisions there’s only nine of them. Or if you go to a city-based structure, you move away from that completely. So I love the fact that it’s a very open competition and if you look at the history, some of the so-called smaller counties have come through and won it. But to be sustainable, I think we have to move to some kind of English Premier League and take our place alongside the IPL and the Big Bash.
Obviously I will be doing all I can, as will my team, to make sure that Birmingham is at the heart of any new developments. And even though it was nothing to do with me, I am very proud of the fact that we ARE the Birmingham Bears. It shows that we are innovative; that we are leading the charge rather than following. I know that some people don’t like the Birmingham Bears brand but I think it is the way forward.
Birmingham is the second city; Edgbaston is the biggest ground outside London. We would never be complacent but I’d be surprised if we weren’t at the centre of whatever the new order looks like.
DEC: You said recently that you thought English cricket should get back to having just six Test Match grounds. Is that achievable?
NS: It goes back to the business side and the economics. Durham is a wonderful ground and I think they’ve done a great job, but for them to be paying what they are to be hosting a Sri Lanka Test Match in May just doesn’t stack up. It’s as simple as that. It’s the same with Cardiff.
The other reality is that there’s a lot of uncertainty about the amount of Test Match cricket going forward. We’re blessed at the moment having seven home Tests per season. I don’t see that continuing because of the other international teams and their attitude towards Test cricket. So right now we’ve got nine grounds chasing seven Tests every year. If that goes down to six or even (God forbid) five it doesn’t stack up.
Hopefully there will be a lot more ODI cricket and international T20 cricket. So for those grounds that have invested, I’m not saying for a second that the ECB should pull the rug away but I think there are certain grounds suited to Test Match cricket and there are others that are best suited to ODI and T20 cricket.
DEC: So let’s look forward and assume you’ve been at Edgbaston for five years. How will you judge your success?
NS: Well, there’s half a dozen areas we can look at.
On the cricket side, I don’t think it’s a glib statement to say that we should be competing in all three forms of the game. I would like to think that we had won some silverware in each of those five years. That is a challenge we should set ourselves and what we should aspire to do.
We’ve got a target at the moment of having 40% of our players home grown. I’d like to see that increased to north of 50%. We’ve got a good academy, we’ve got a fantastic Academy Director in Paul Greetham, we’ve got great facilities with the Indoor School and the Portland Road Foundation Ground.
I’d also like to see the next generation of Warwickshire players playing for England, to replace Bell and Trott.
On the commercial side looking ahead five years, we’ll still have debt but I’d like to see a solid business that washes its face and more. We’ve got scope for growth in terms of domestic T20, in terms of our conference events and hospitality.
On the community side, I think we do some good work but I’d like us to be doing a lot more to address the opportunities and challenges within Birmingham and the role that cricket can play, particularly with the South Asian market, but also more generally. Birmingham, as I’m discovering from living here, is a wonderful city, but it has its challenges. I don’t think it’s glib to say that sport and cricket can help.
I’d like to have a strong pipeline of major match-day cricket. At the end of this year, we’ll go into discussion with the ECB about 2020 to 2022 so I would hope, on a five year timeframe, that we have another solid three to five years of international cricket lined up.
Then there is the venue, Edgbaston Stadium. In five years’ time, the development along the Pershore Road will be complete. I’d like to think we could have done something to upgrade the Raglan and the Priory stands. But that needs to be self-funded because we won’t take any more debt. And I really would like Edgbaston to be seen as the best international cricket ground in the world.
Finally, the people! I talked about how struck I was with the pride. We’ve got a fantastic bunch of people here. One of the features of working at events that have a finite deadline like the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup is that on a fixed day, everyone gets made redundant, which on the one hand is slightly alarming but you’ve got time to prepare for it.
But what gives me huge satisfaction is looking at what these people have gone on to do. With the Rugby World Cup, we’ve got people who were working for me there who are now working with other sports, other venues and I get a lot of pride from that. In five years’ time, not that I want to lose my team but I’d like to think that some of them will have evolved and grown their wings and gone on to do good things elsewhere in sport or in business or in the community.
DEC: You mentioned your experience with teams. Do you think that this means that you will be more hands-on with the cricket team than your predecessor?
NS: I’m pretty clear about that. Dougie Brown is the Director of cricket and he’s got a very good, experienced cricket management team. He’s got a good squad with a lot of experienced senior players. Currently, I probably spend more time with Dougie than any other of my direct reports but that’s because at this time of year, we’re talking a lot about the pre-season preparation. We’ve been re-vamping the changing rooms and that’s an area where I’ve had a bit of input. We’ve talked a lot about the culture and the values, maybe some of the things that weren’t so good at the end of last year. We’ve talked about the Indoor School plus how we use the Foundation Ground. My job is to create the right environment to give Dougie and the team the resources that they need to deliver on the pitch.
Part of the joy of doing a job like this is being close to a professional sports team and seeing them. So I was out in Dubai for a few days with the team, which was a good chance to get to know them. They’re a really good bunch of lads. I’ll always talk to them; encourage them but I wouldn’t for one second see myself getting involved in tactics or selection. It’s early days but we’ve struck up a good relationship. I’m learning from Dougie and he’s learning from me.
DEC: One thing you haven’t mentioned is your past involvement with Surrey and Guildford.
NS: Yes, Guildford’s my club, I’ve been involved there for about 10 to 15 years. I played a bit there, coached a bit, managed and ended up on the committee and was Chairman there for three years. The great thing about it is that we hosted the cricket festival there. So through that, I developed a close relationship with Surrey. Once a year, they moved into town and we ran the festival in partnership.
Then Surrey invited me to be part of their advisory group, so I know the Surrey guys and the set-up pretty well. I was Chairman of Guildford but also of the Festival Committee for a number of years, which was an absolute joy. In terms of enjoyment and satisfaction, it comes top of the list. That might seem strange because it’s been a great privilege to run the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup but the miracle of Guildford was really special, how with a bunch of volunteers we transformed a very nice but small ground into a venue for first-class cricket.
DEC: … and at a time when festival cricket has almost died.
NS: Yes and again I’m torn, because I’m a big fan of out ground cricket and I know a lot of the players are. They would prefer to play a four-day game at Guildford in front of 4-5,000 people rather than in front of 500 people at the Oval. But once again it comes down to the economics. The reality is that the Guildford Festival costs Surrey money and also costs the Council money to put it on, just because of the amount of infrastructure that needs to be brought in. I do fear for out ground cricket because I think it’s a very special thing. But it’s the economics of it and when we go from 16 to 14 Championship games a year, it will put even more pressure on it, which I think is a real sadness for the game.
DEC: What about the membership side of things at Warwickshire?
NS: We are going to have a thorough review of categories and prices this year ahead of next year, just because cricket’s changing. I think the concept of the all-in membership, that gives you access to all of the cricket, doesn’t necessarily appeal to everybody. We’ve got a bit of a mishmash of membership packages at the moment. On the one hand, that’s good because you can’t say one size fits all but we’ve just got too many moving parts.
One of the really nice things that we have done is that, at the end of January, when we had the deadline for the reduced membership fees, the players got on the phone to the members that hadn’t renewed. It was great, we had a whole line-up of players and I got on the phones as well. Just doing that for a couple of days, it struck me how complicated it is. So we said that we need to review it. And with T20, we’ve introduced the season pass – almost like a T20 season ticket, like rugby or football.
So our members are very important to us. We’ll hopefully firm up the new membership offerings in the next couple of months for next year. I hope that people will respond to that positively. It’s not an excuse for a price hike, more to ensure that people get what they want and pay a fair price for it.
I met members at the carol service, which is another really nice tradition; met them at the Members’ nets, another great event and at the AGM. I’ve had my ear bent by a number of people but it’s all with an underlying passion and an absolute love for the Club. It’s really strong, unbelievable, which is something that we need to build on.
DEC: Finally, are there any other insights you can offer us into Neil Snowball? For example, as a player, were you a good cricketer?
NS: Very average! Very enthusiastic, but my talent didn’t quite match my enthusiasm. I love the game. I still play the odd game but unfortunately, because of a combination of rugby and cricket, I’ve smashed up both shoulders so I can’t bowl. I did try to re-make myself as a wicket-keeper a couple of years ago, but that was relatively short-lived.
By the way, it’s my 50th birthday today so that’s my first legitimate half-century!
DEC: Thank you, Neil – and happy birthday!