Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The tough realities behind the nostalgia for County Cricket


There has been plenty of highly charged and emotional stuff around since Lancashire’s victory in the County Championship. From me included! And this nostalgia, when you come down to it, is a big part of what is wrong with domestic Cricket in England. Its strengths – the sort of honest but blind devotion we see in this blog for example – are also its weaknesses. The irony will have escaped some but at a time when the England team is at its strongest point for years the County system is on its knees. It is ironic, but it is not paradoxical. The England set up has little if any connection with County cricket – its centrally contracted players rarely appear for their counties and County cricket is largely an irrelevance for England. “Hang on”, the cricket traditionalist will cry, “where do the international players come from if they don’t come from the counties?” Well one answer would be “Ireland, South Africa and now New Zealand” but that might be a bit too clever-clever and pat. Of course the England squad have all come from County cricket - where the heck else would they come from – it’s the only game in town! But that doesn’t make it the best game or even the right game – except to those who close their minds to change.

The stark reality is that virtually all of the 18 counties are bankrupt or close to insolvency. They are only kept alive at all by hand-outs of around £2m each from the ECB. And where does the ECB get its money from to distribute this largesse? Well you and me actually. Three big sources of ECB funding are the Sky contract, international match ticket sales and the bids that major County ground owners make to have the right to stage a Test match or a limited overs international. Let’s just run through the implications for the cricket fan of these three ECB income streams.

The Sky contract is exclusive – there is no live cricket on non-subscription television in Britain. None! So a cricket fan who wants to watch England’s Test match triumphs live will have to fork out a minimum of £50 a month across the year to see it on Sky. Our summer sport, unlike to an extent our winter ones (at least the international part of them) , is unprotected from the commercial priorities of Sky – this is regressive of course. The rich man in his castle pays the same to watch Sky television as the poor man at his gate. So if the poor man’s ten-year-old takes an interest in cricket he can’t just switch on the BBC or ITV or Channel 4 – he has to persuade his hard-pressed parents to cough up £50+ a month. Not very likely is it?

Then there is the price of international cricket tickets to consider - they are by far the highest in the world. You can watch five days Test cricket in Australia for the cost of one day at Lord’s or The Oval. And you could watch a couple of seasons for that same amount in India. Why so high? Because the ECB says so - and the ECB says so because it needs the loot for the Counties. A day at a Test match for a family of four this year would have cost around £350 for the tickets alone. Oddly enough I didn’t see many families of four at the grounds this summer.

What about the auction that the ECB runs for the right to stage international matches? Sealed tenders mean that for most of the games the keen applicants have to take a hard expensive punt to stand a chance. This has nearly bankrupted Glamorgan – to such an extent that they had to withdraw from staging a West Indies Test at Cardiff next year despite being awarded it. They couldn’t afford to pay for the privilege! And the MCC, owners of Lord’s, were forced into a trading loss last year by the blind bids they made to host Test matches. Its complete nonsense of course – most of all when you realise that the ECB only does it to gather money for the failing Counties! So Glamorgan bids high to stage a Test which generates income for the ECB who pass it back to the Counties – including Glamorgan. D'oh!

So we pay of the order of £36m per year to keep the counties afloat. But, as this blog correctly says, nobody goes to watch them play - in the County Championship anyway. That we follow it in other ways may be true but that is hardly the basis of a sustainable business! And whilst the final round of Championship matches was certainly exciting through most of the season most of the cricket watching public hadn’t a clue about what was going on. The competition even stopped for a month or so so that the more money-spinning limited overs competitions could take place. Conservatives argue that outmoded businesses that blunder on sustained only by public hand-outs and with out-of - date business models should be allowed to die. That is precisely what we have in our current County system. There is direct public money – via the Sports Council – and indirect via Sky or the ECB’s inflated ticket prices going to County cricket. It may not all appear on Mr Osborne’s public sector accounts – but it’s as much public money as the NHS or the welfare state.

I have argued that the solution for English domestic cricket is to have far fewer top tier domestic teams – about eight seems right - and far better competition. This need not be the end of the Counties (please follow the link to see my argument for an alternative County model). As with so much in life this is a battle between the modernisers who see the realities and the traditionalists who really do think that all is well. Act soon – or those past “Glories” will turn to dust!

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