Is there a future for County Cricket?
To say that County Cricket is not exactly thriving at the moment would be an understatement. Dwindling crowds and a lack of exposure are all threatening the future of the county game. Over the last two days I have been watching Gloucestershire compete against Durham MCCU in both their first competitive games. On both days there were barely 200 people in the ground. This is the case in many matches on the county circuit today and this shows no sign of improving.
The one saving grace for county cricket has been T20. It has been the only format that successfully gets supporters through the gates since it was first introduced. However there are those that believe that even this is not enough. Based on the success of the IPL in India and the Big Bash in Australia, they argue that our own NatWest T20 Blast simply is not the attraction it should be. On Monday further details were released about a proposed new T20 franchise tournament, which is hoped will help bring the English game to an entirely new generation. The releasing of these new details has revived the debate about whether the introduction of franchises in the UK would actually work.
First of all it is important to understand what the ECB’s new proposals actually entails. There would be eight teams who would be entirely separate from the counties. 36 games in total would be played and all games would be televised with some on ‘free to air’ television. The tournament would not run alongside the current NatWest T20 Blast. On the face of it, this all sounds very simple, however with 18 counties to please, the ECB has a lot of work to do if the tournament is to be in place when their next television deals begins in 2020. Perhaps the biggest issue is how to get eighteen grounds into eight without upsetting those counties are not chosen? The simple answer is that you can’t. With the grounds that are likely to be chosen being those that already host test match cricket, it is likely that the smaller counties will miss out again. The likes of Essex and Sussex, whose T20 Blast matches frequently sell out, will not get a franchise. Whereas teams such as Warwickshire who in recent years have seen poorer attendances will almost certainly get a franchise.
There is an argument that has been made that once again the ECB are prioritising the bigger counties. Though it is important to remember that these new franchises will be completely separate entities from the county sides that play at the same grounds. So a player that plays for the franchise side playing at Headingley will not also have to join Yorkshire due to the franchise and the county being completely separate. The NatWest T20 Blast will also continue to run as a competition that all counties will be involved in. In this regard the new competition seems relatively fair. However there may be a time where players who play for a different franchise to their county, who then may decide to join the county side that their franchise team shares a ground with. This once again is at a disadvantage to the smaller counties.
Though the smaller counties do not seem to be overly bothered about this, at the initial vote about T20 Franchises the vote was 15-3 in favour of the change. It seems likely that this will not change when there is a vote again, due to a £1.3 million a year package for all counties – many of whom are cash strapped – if the new tournament goes ahead. However it will be the fans who are most likely to cause the largest resistance to the new tournament. Many fans feel the new tournament is a threat to the county game that they love. They see the new tournament as the beginning of the end for county cricket, with eventually many counties no longer existing. This is unlikely to be the case, because the new tournament and the money it will bring in should help some of the smaller counties who struggle for finances remain intact. You only have to look at Durham to see how quickly things can go wrong. If the new tournament can generate enough money to aid all counties in a similar way then this can only be a good thing.
The arguments when considered generally point towards a new tournament being a positive, however for it to have its desired effects of helping more children to get involved in the game it must be on ‘free to air’ television. The popularity of the Big Bash in Australia can be partly attributed to its ‘free to air’ exposure. If the new tournament is hidden away on pay TV, it will not be worth all of the ECB’s efforts if very few can actually watch it. Cricket’s popularity in recent years peaked in 2005 in which the Ashes was shown on Channel 4. It is up to the ECB to provide a package that ‘free to air’ broadcasters are going to want to invest in.
The proposed new tournament is still three years away from taking place if it even does, and the ECB still has plenty to do to make sure it is a success. It must attract new fans whilst not alienating those that follow the game regularly. If they can strike the right balance between the two, all of this current conflict may just be worth it.