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Stumped for cash: How can county cricket survive?

Create: 02/15/2017 - 00:00

If you watched last season’s Cheltenham Festival or one of Somerset’s 50-over games then you might think that county cricket is in good shape. But while there might be good crowds and plentiful sponsors at times, the domestic game has many problems to solve. XtraTime discussed finance and the future with our two local county chief executives,  Will Brown of Gloucestershire and Somerset's Guy Lavender...

Central to county cricket's viability lies the financial distribution from the golden egg the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) goose lays each season, derived from television, broadcast and sponsorship revenue. More than 40 per cent of Gloucestershire and Somerset’s annual income comes from this source. The ECB also has healthy reserves of its own, running at £73 million as of January 2016.
The counties also raise income from sponsorship, members, local cricket committees and gate income, of which T20 is the most financially successful format. For example, more than half of all of Gloucestershire’s gate revenue in 2015 came from matches in the NatWest T20 Blast. The ECB is now seeking to maximise revenue through the game's shortest form when the television rights come up for negotiation again. The current proposal is to create a new  city-only tournament based around eight venues, as well as a 20 over tournament for the ‘non-city counties’. A figure of £40 million has been discussed as the television rights alone for such a competition.
However, the way forward presents a number of conundrums. Four-day county cricket loses money everywhere but is popular with club members, who in most instances form the committees that run the individual counties. Consequently, the Specsavers County Championship remains but matches are increasingly pushed to the beginning and end of the season – at times when it is even less likely to attract an audience and when it is even more vulnerable to the weather. To illustrate the point, the 2017 season begins in March, with the last day's play scheduled for September 29.
A city T20 franchise would imitate the hugely successful Indian Premier League and the Australian Big Bash, but with only eight to ten sites participating it would relegate the ‘non-city counties’ to a lesser tournament. There are also those who argue that the current format attracts good crowds, so why change it?
Day / night matches, popular in Australia, are seen as another way of generating revenue and England will experiment  with this before the next Ashes tour. But in Bristol and Taunton, June's night-time low temperatures are on average between 9-12C with a 50 per cent chance of rain on any given day. Sydney has a 18C average during their equivalent summer, with only a one in four chance of rain. It's worth the risk for the much shorter T20 game, but four or five hours under lights on an English summer's evening could require thermal underwear, rather than the shorts and T shirts donned in the Antipodes.
However, with a financial crisis seeing Durham bailed out by the ECB ast season and Northamptonshire also teetering on the brink, the various proposals are played out against a backdrop that – if nothing changes – then there is a real danger the 8 first-class counties may well diminish anyway.

Gloucestershire CCC CEO Will Brown (above) says:

“There are three issues going forward. The money and being sustainable is clearly important. Secondly, most counties are seeing a decline in recreational club cricket and we have to look at how we can reverse that trend. Finally, we all share a concern for the future of the game. 
In terms of the T20, the hope of being a city franchise does make a difference to some counties and that carrot is not insignificant. But all the talk coming from the ECB is, whether you are a host county or not, for such a competition to work, the money would need to be shared between everyone. So, can the ECB prove that it is genuinely sustainable to have two T20 competitions as well as the Championship and a 50-over competition?
At the moment there is lot that is not yet clear, although if it goes ahead there will be a prestige attached to hosting it and Bristol is a very large city. One thing all the first-class counties have fed back is that we need more detail but if the ECB could get all 18 counties to agree then they would have performed a minor miracle.
Personally I don’t think the suggested change to a city league works that well. I talked to clubs down in Devon and Cornwall and they said if something was badged 'Bristol' then they may come once or twice, but if it was a 'South West something’ then they could buy into that. We have seen this concept already with the Kia Women’s Super League.
Financially, we have seen an horrendous situation at Durham and I think that has given most counties a wake-up call. Some of us have probably been too frugal and miserly in the past, which in our case led to us being a bit in the cricketing wilderness. We have begun to change that recently. This year our membership is up and we will trade at a profit. That will make it three in a row, which is a situation we haven’t had in a long time.
In looking at involvement I would welcome the re-introduction of festival cricket across the country, especially over the next couple of years, with a number of county grounds locked down for, first the women’s and then the men’s, World Cup. 
We recognise that Cheltenham is enormously successful for us – the biggest cricket festival anywhere. Some people argue we should play there all the time but everybody knows it is just for two weeks in July. It’s like a mini-Wimbledon with Pimm’s and strawberries and cream and it works really well. Play too many matches and it would hit a saturation point. But, if the ECB would help counties by supporting at least one match a season, for taking cricket out to people, that could do a lot for the grassroots and re-engage communities with cricket.
In the future I think there are a lot of people still very wedded to the County Championship, both in counties and at the ECB. T20 is the most financially viable and gets the biggest attendances so if there is a squeeze I think it could come in the 50-over competition. That would be a shame for us because it is probably the format in which we have been most successful!”

Somerset CCC CEO Guy Lavender says:

“Our financial results for last season, announced in November, showed a good year. After making almost £600,000 profit, we are financially stable. Although other counties, such as Surrey, do well, I think of the non-Test match playing grounds we are far the most successful. But across the 18 counties we need everyone to be operating businesses that are financially stable. We don’t run cricket clubs to make money but to re-invest any surplus back into cricket.
So all clubs need to make sure the balance is right between the broadcast income the way you manage your cricket, the risks you take and the development of your ground. Durham are not the only club that finds themselves under financial stress and that’s a massive issue for all of us. We all have to run our clubs as prudently as we can but also look for opportunities to drive new revenue.
We have done a lot of things right here. We have over 6,000 members and being a members' club is really important to us. Last season we sold out all of our T20 games, 7-8,000 seats, the only club to do so in the country, plus we have great revenue coming in from our commercial and catering activities. But we still have to make sure people want to come here through doing things such as signing world-class players like Chris Gayle, because this a competitive market.
On the T20 front, we want to see what any new competition might look like and what are the implications for our club and for others, but as I have discovered over the last six years there are many different views across the clubs. We have to be realistic enough and open enough not to close our eyes to new opportunities.
I think for the 2017 season the balance of cricket, with the T20 matches together in a block, is an improvement, but we also have a reduction in the number of County Championship matches, which is unpopular for many people. We think the it is the most important form of the game. Some of our members, I am sure, would want to to see the County Championship back at the heart of the season.
We have a very good talent development system across the West Country and we are spending a lot of time, money and coaching capacity in developing those players for the future. We want players to think that if they are at Taunton then that is a stepping stone to an international career. It is vital that we develop our own players, probably our most important task because you can’t buy talent in, in the same way you can in football and rugby. We think we need a strong bedrock of local players who have come through our system and who understand the club and who have Somerset and the West Country in their veins.

About Author

Andrew Kerslake
Andrew Kerslake is the Managing Director of XtraTime. He has worked as a freelance sports journalist covering both football and cricket and written and broadcast journalism. In another life he was also Professor of Public Care at Oxford Brookes University.