As usual at the start of a new season, English cricket fans are full of anticipation and excitement. But alongside these positive emotions runs a fair degree of apprehension about the longer term future of the game in this country.
Several surveys have shown that participation and interest in cricket have declined in recent years. In addition, the county game is financially insecure, with many counties carrying large debts related to ground improvements. But the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have a cunning plan!
Discussions are ongoing between the ECB and the counties concerning a proposed new English domestic T20 tournament, provisionally titled the English Premier League (EPL).
What concerns many cricket lovers is whether the ECB has a clear vision for the new competition. If so, is it the right vision; and is it achievable?
What will the new T20 competition look like?
Information for cricket lovers about the EPL has dribbled out from the ECB like oil from a leaky can. What we know so far is that the new competition will start, appropriately, in 2020. There will be eight teams with 15-man squads, playing 36 games in a 38-day window. Each game will be televised.
Much remains to be clarified. So here are five key questions, the answers to which will hopefully emerge over the next few months.
What are the basic aims of the ECB in setting up the EPL? What do they want it to achieve?
“If one doesn’t know for which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable“ – Seneca the Younger
Administrators in other countries have had to address this key question in setting up their own T20 tournaments. Cricket Australia, for example, have always been clear about the purpose of their Big Bash League (BBL). Chief Executive James Sutherland has said: “The strategy was to bring new people to the game, and that’s still the strategy today.”
So what is the purpose behind the EPL? Is it primarily about making money, about balancing the books. Or is it about attracting new, young fans who would in time progress to following other forms of the game and be hooked for life?
Of course, these two aims are partly complementary – the more people who follow the game, the more money is likely to come into the coffers. But it isn’t always that simple. 10,000 people watching a match and paying £40 each for the privilege bring in more money than 20,000 paying £15. But if the primary aim is more bottoms on seats, the £15 option wins every time; and if in addition, 10,000 kids are allowed in for free, that might create more hassle and costs for the ground authorities but could be great for the future of the game.
How will the EPL be funded?
“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” – Anon
There are two models for funding a major T20 tournament. Model one is the Indian Premier League (IPL) which operates on a franchise system. Organisations or groups of individuals, in effect, buy teams. They then seek to recoup their outlay by income from tournament and team sponsors, from broadcasting rights and from ticket and merchandise sales. The tournament organiser receives money from the sale of the franchises and takes a slice of broadcasting and sponsorship income.
The second model is the Australian Big Bash League. Here, the Big Bash teams are owned, not privately but by the Australian State cricket authorities – in other words, ownership (and income) has been kept inside the game; but so has much of the financial risk.
Will the ECB seek to copy the IPL or the Big Bash models; or will they come up with a new approach?
Although the counties have been promised a £1.3 million annual pay-out if the EPL goes ahead, it is unlikely that the new competition will generate instant profits. A new major event doesn’t just happen. It needs to be planned and marketed. In fact, the ECB are forecasting that the EPL will lose £15 million in its first year. Whilst this will not affect that promised £1.3 million pay-out, it does highlight the mountain to be climbed before the tournament actually makes money.
Some county chairmen and chief executives may have been surprised to discover this planned loss. But those who have done their homework will know the history of both the IPL and the Big Bash. Neither has been a profit-generating machine. After almost a decade, the IPL is still struggling to break even. The Big Bash League generated income of $154 million in its first five years but expenditure was $187 million, a loss of $33 million. When the figures are added up, the 2016/17 Big Bash may prove to be the first to make a profit.
What the counties may know (or presumably soon will) is how the planned £15 million loss has been calculated in terms of projected income and expenditure; and those projections will be shaped by the financial structure (e.g. private franchising or not) proposed by the ECB.
Who will get the broadcasting rights?
“Television is a golden goose that lays scrambled eggs” – (Lee Loevinger)
If the ECB’s primary aim is to maximise income, they will presumably give the television contract to the highest bidder.
If, however, the main purpose is to encourage new (and mainly young) people into the game, that may change the decision.
Whilst not necessarily true, it is a widely accepted belief that the decline in interest in cricket in the UK began with and was largely caused by the disappearance of the game from free-to-air television.
The ECB may well look enviously at the situation in Australia where free-to-air Network Ten paid handsomely for the television rights. Will there be a similar free-to-air broadcaster prepared to compete financially with Sky or BT for the rights to televise the new tournament? Or will there be clauses in the bidding process that provide some arrangement for a significant amount of free-to-air access? And if so, will that kill off or dampen down the interest of other broadcasters?
It will be interesting to see the assumptions the ECB have made about broadcast income in forecasting their £15 million loss; and even more interesting to see the terms of the tender for broadcasting rights that is likely to be issued early in the summer.
Will the teams be city, county or area based?
“What’s in a name?” – Well-known Warwickshire supporter known as Bill
Teams in both the IPL and the Big Bash are city based. This makes sense in India and Australia where population is concentrated in large cities that are in the main located far from each other. In England, the distances are much smaller; and the existing county-based system has prevailed for 150 years or so.
Many have already pointed out that a city-based structure might deter rather than attract support – a Manchester-named team would be unlikely to gain much support from Liverpool and a Leeds team would not appeal to the citizens of Sheffield or Bradford. What should a South-West team be called? Bristol, Bath, Taunton? And where does that leave Cardiff?
It seems very clear that the ECB is unlikely to replicate a county-based structure for the new tournament. Sussex have sought and apparently received an assurance that none of the existing county names will be used.
So maybe it will be an area structure. But, to be honest, titles such as the North-West Warriors or the Midlands Maulers hardly set the pulses racing.
How will the new tournament co-exist with other competitions?
“Cooperation begins where competition leaves off” – Franklin D Roosevelt
The existing county competitions – the four day Championship, the 50 over tournament and the NatWest T20 Blast – will continue to be played, as will international cricket. How will it all fit together?
Here, we have at least the germs of some answers. The new tournament is proposed to start on 24 July 2020 and end on August 30. The T20 Blast will precede the new tournament; and the 50 over competition will take place at the same time, despite many players not being available. Test cricket will also be played in July and August; and Test selection will take precedence over involvement in the new tournament.
What is less clear is how the T20 Blast and the 50 over competition will retain their attractiveness for both spectators and sponsors when so much focus is bound to be placed on the new competition.
If there is anyone in the ECB marketing department who is particularly unpopular, we can assume that they will get the poisoned chalice of promoting the T20 Blast and persuading NatWest to continue their sponsorship. As for the 50 over one-day cup, it already seems to be the poor relation amongst existing competitions. Will it retain spectator interest and commercial sponsorship or might it just fade away?
If existing competitions lose popularity, how much income will counties lose? How far will these losses eat into the promised £1.3 million payout?
And so on we go!
“We have come to the edge of the abyss and now it is time for a bold step forward” – Ed Balls
Despite all these doubts and the questions that still remain to be answered, it seems very likely that the counties will vote in favour of the EPL and it will go ahead in 2020.
There is no doubt that English cricket needs a shot in the arm. The ECB is poised, syringe in hand, ready to administer that shot. We must hope that the potion that they have created is not a recipe for assisted euthanasia but instead will bring new life to the sport that we love.