Lessons for the ECB’s bold venture into uncharted territory

If you’re not a fan of switch hits, midgame firework displays, or any of the T20 fanfare, and would much rather tune into a test match with a copy of Wisden in hand and a cup of tea by your side, look away now. This is going to get ugly.

I’m not going to patronise you, for I too am a traditionalist. I’d much prefer to watch a patient test ton than a T20 slogathon. For me, there is less glory in the shortest form of the game; matches are quickly forgotten and the performances within them fade swiftly from memory.

But this is the direction cricket is headed. What was once seen to be revolutionary is now the norm. T20 has connected with a generation of cricket fans that must be entertained to remain invested. The ECB and counties that voted in favour of ‘revolutionising’ cricket in England are simply following a well-trodden path.

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What concerns me most about this new tournament is that it will run in conjunction with the ‘Blast’. Already there are 133 games of T20 cricket played during the summer. If the new franchise tournament is to follow a four-match home and away structure, this figure will balloon out to 165 – and that’s without considering the extra finals matches.

If these numbers don’t get your blood boiling as a cricket purist, nothing will. The truth is, in another 10 years, this will seem perfectly normal. The County Championship and One-Day Cup will have shrunk significantly by then. Just ask Adil Rashid and Alex Hales. Both have pulled up stumps on their respective red-ball careers in favour of the shorter formats. And fair do’s to them both. They have identified that going on the T20 circuit is the best way to earn a crust in an era of reduced test match scheduling and vast franchise riches.

With the emergence of a second T20 tournament, the prevalence of short form specialists like Hales and Rashid will increase year-on-year. Since the days of World Series Cricket, players have gone in search of rock star-sized paychecks. In many ways, the players of that era are responsible for normalizing the contract processes – such as IPL auctions – we now take for granted.

In that spirit, let’s take a look at what the new English franchise competition can learn from one of the biggest T20 tournaments in the short history of the format.

Why the BBL works

Believe it or not, the BBL hasn’t always been as successful as it is today. In its early years it struggled to draw crowds and attract a television audience. When free to air network, Channel 10, bought the rights for $100 million on a five-year deal in 2013, the competition suddenly gained traction. In 2016/17, the BBL averaged 1.03 million television viewers per match; there was a slight fall in viewership this year, with 947,000 tuning in each night. Compare these figures to the ‘Blast’, and you begin to see why the ECB had no choice but to implement a franchise competition – and why it was necessary for a FTA broadcaster to obtain the rights to show some games. T20 Finals Day in 2015, which saw Lancashire take out the crown, averaged an audience of 388,000 on Sky Sports. Attendance figures in the ‘Blast’ are also smashed every year by the BBL, which sees well over 1.5 million people pass through the stadium gates each season.

In addition to exposure on FTA television, the BBL can attribute some of its success to the popularity of its high profile overseas stars. As is the case in several sports around the world, the superstars of the game bring with them an extra element of excitement. Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan stunned the Adelaide Strikers faithful in the most recent season of the BBL. He, along with other big-name players like Dwayne Bravo, Tymal Mills, Shadab Khan, David Willey, Carlos Brathwaite and Kevin Pietersen, develop interest in the tournament; they are the BBL’s major selling point and are indirectly responsible for increases in grassroots participation.

While the ‘Blast’ also features a whole host of international players, they are spread across 18 counties, rather than 8 franchises, and are scarcely able to commit to the full two months of competition. But this is all common knowledge by now, and no doubt contributed to the ECB’s push for a franchise-based tournament. Nevertheless, in order for the new competition to flourish, international stars must take centre stage. In the BBL they are the face of marketing campaigns and television advertisements. Without them, many would see tournaments like the BBL as little more than a glorified version of the fatiguing one-day cup.

The ECB will have no trouble selling a franchise competition to the masses, especially if it is played during the school holidays. The BBL runs across the summer break in Australia, with all games played at family-friendly hours, and tickets sold at family-friendly prices. This is important, and has been a contributing factor to the tournament’s longevity. There are concerns, however, that expansion is counterproductive to T20 cricket. The tournament was extended to 40 matches plus finals in 2017/18 and was met with a subsequent drop in television ratings.

The T20 paradox

One of the problems with T20 cricket is that it quickly becomes repetitive. Most matches follow a similar storyline by virtue of their brevity. Seeing a ball sail into the grandstand every night at 6 o’clock can only remain enjoyable for so long. T20 doesn’t ebb and flow the way test matches do either. If a team limps to a first innings total there is no time to put things right.

There is a school of thought amongst Australia’s leading scribes that the BBL has reached its breaking point as a result. Any further changes to the way the product is sold and packaged will turn fans away. The ECB’s new competition must avoid trying to oversell itself the way Australia has in recent times. With two tournaments running in tandem, there is a good chance fans will suffer fatigue. How are the ECB going to deal with this? It’s an important question and will ultimately decide how long the tournament remains relevant.

In this day and age, cricket must move with the times. CA has done this exceptionally well; the BBL is still among the best-supported sporting ventures in the country. Can the ECB find a balance between its thirst for cash and the limits of T20 cricket the way Australia has? Or will it fall into the trap of pushing it beyond its limitations and be flogging a dead horse before five years are up?

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