The franchise game

We all knew it was coming. However much cricket fans hoped the ECB wouldn’t get their own way on city franchises we knew, deep down, that they would. After all, the ECB have time and again shown themselves to be more concerned about money than the sport they govern, so, given that Sky clearly want franchises, that’s what we’ll get. The ECB also needs to do this before the next TV deal is negotiated, in order to maximise its revenue, meaning that the decision is being rushed through before the tender process begins.

Ostensibly there was a vote of course. The Counties and the MCC in a 16-3 “yes” decision to have a city franchise competition running alongside the existing T20 Blast (for now) with a short consultation first. If that sounds like turkeys voting for Christmas, well the turkeys were well rewarded to the tune of £1.3-£1.5m per county according to reports. Given the precarious state of many counties’ finances the compensation would have been hard to refuse, but in taking it then have they indirectly signed their own death warrants? And what of the members that (most) represent?

Most of the members of county cricket clubs that I know oppose the idea of city franchises. By and large they don’t have an issue with Twenty20 cricket, and many go and watch the T20 Blast, but what they hate is the idea of cricket being taken away from counties and put into eight franchises. How this is done, the compensation that counties will get, the way that the franchises will operate are all irrelevant; this is a fundamental opposition to the formation of eight “city” clubs.

There are lots of reasons for this. For a start, it attacks the very structure of professional cricket in the UK by focussing on eight cities, when the game has been organised around counties since the 19th century. This matters a lot to people: a Liverpudlian may be enthusiastic about watching Lancashire at Old Trafford, but tell the same fan that he or she should support a team called “Manchester” and you’d get short shrift. Sport in the UK is tribalistic, whether around a county in cricket or a city in football, with fans feeling an attachment to place, and teams have almost exclusively grown organically rather than being franchised to an area. It’s one of the key differentiators between sport in the UK and in other parts of the world, such as the USA and Australia.

Fans also look to the current structure of eighteen counties and the new proposals of eight city franchises. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that ten of the county grounds won’t be hosting any of the new competition. With teams likely to be based at the larger, test grounds (details are yet to be confirmed) then large swathes of the country will miss out. The beauty of the county system is its accessibility to so many people. The counties cover large areas and while they may be headquartered in a specific place, supporters will come from across the county to watch. Not only that, but you often find supporters from neighbouring “minor counties” (in cricket terms) supporting their nearest professional team: there are plenty from Devon and Cornwall who travel to Taunton to watch Somerset for example. Call me a cynic but I can’t see many fans travelling long distances to watch two franchised teams in a city that means nothing to them.

And then there are the players who will miss out. We’re told that players like the idea of city franchises and no doubt many see it as a way to make some cash in the short career of professional sport. No one would dispute that as a valid reason but the maths show that many young British players will miss out. If we assume that each county has a squad of 25 then you have 450 players and then if we assume each franchise will have a squad of 20 that gives you 160 players. That’s almost 300 fewer, even without the inevitable influx of foreign stars. The likelihood is that there would be about a maximum of 130-140 places available for the county players. The rest may (we don’t yet know) have the chance to play county cricket at the same time (although there would surely be resistance from those counties whose squads have been weakened most) or they may simply be twiddling their thumbs for the best part of a month during the season.

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Possible locations for the city franchises

If the window for the new competition is given over to it exclusively then it isn’t just the
majority of county players that will miss out on cricket for several weeks of the summer. Many county cricket fans will also be without cricket should they choose not to watch the franchises (and I suspect that large numbers will so just that.) And not only that but test matches are also likely to be halted to give England players the chance to play in the new competition (and to allow Sky to concentrate on it): the ECB is prepared to shunt what should be its highlight of the year to either end of the summer.

Opposing the views of fans are many (but by no means all) of the media. The case for franchises (that they work in Australia and India) has long been espoused by some commentators and journalists, notably – and unsurprisingly – those contracted to Sky. The vested interest needs no explanation and this group has long tweeted, spoken and written about the need for a franchise based competition. Much of the chatter has been amongst themselves or small groups of people on social media and perhaps this has convinced them that there is widespread support for the idea; it is easy for likeminded groups to view themselves as a majority when, in fact, they are quite the opposite and social media amplifies the effect.

It would be fair to say too that many of these proponents seldom break out of the media bubble in which their views are rarely challenged. They are also often those who have come to their profession through playing cricket professionally and, as a result, they don’t have the experience of being a fan. That’s not a criticism – as a fan I have no experience of playing the game professionally – but it means that they lack the understanding of why and how support works in the UK. On the other hand, there are journalists who have direct experience of being a cricket fan and by and large their views on franchises have been more balanced.

What the proponents of the franchise system have failed to explain is who will actually watch the competition. I know of few, if any, existing county members who plan to pay to go and watch a city franchise that they feel completely unattached to. Some will, of course, but I suspect they will be in a very small minority. That means that the competition will need to attract existing T20 punters who are not county members and/or new fans. The first of these groups has potential in that some, but by no means all, of them go to T20 for a night out with mates. These people have little interest in the actual cricket or who is playing and so it doesn’t really matter whether they are watching a county or a city franchise as long as their mates are there and there are plenty of bars available. How many people fall into that category is another matter. In London there are plenty, in the other cities where the franchises are likely to be there may not be quite so many – and lets not forget that lots of the T20 crowds are county supporters too, regardless of whether they are members, and consequently they are far less likely to attend.

The cost of going to games is another factor for existing fans (whether they be members or not). People have limited budgets and going to watch teams in the new competition may well mean they are unable to go to the county T20 games or vice versa. This is amplified by the franchise games being in a block, meaning that the cost is concentrated into a month – it is no coincidence that the T20 Blast attendances have increased when the games (and cost) is spread across a longer period.

The second target group seems to me to be the one that the franchise proponents are counting on: the uninitiated. Quite how this will happen is unclear and there appears to be no reason why new fans would flock to watch T20 cricket simply because a team is named after a city any more than they would a county. The fact that the teams will have international stars is largely irrelevant – the counties already field many of these players – simply because of the profile of cricket in the UK. With all live cricket on pay TV (Sky) then the professional game has disappeared off the radar for many people. Whereas once kids and adults alike would be able to reel off the names of international players, these days even the England team can walk down the street without being recognised – and another competition on pay TV isn’t going to change that regardless of marketing.

Who will watch is the key question that needs to be answered. The counties have voted for further consultation, but the period for that is so short that it is nothing more than a
paper exercise. The ECB is simply looking at the next TV deal, which will further line the pockets of its executives, while the counties themselves look to the compensation they will receive while the media will continue to talk about how great the Big Bash in Australia is, without bothering to look at the differentiating factors between sport in the UK and Australia (see inset) or at competitions such as the Ram Slam in South Africa which are nowhere near as popular.

As for the counties, members fear that this is just the first step in dismantling a system that has been in place since the 19th Century. The is a concern that the ECB’s focus on the new franchises will marginalise the County Championship and further devalue other competitions and, in time, clubs may disappear. Given that county members are the bedrock of support for domestic cricket the implications of that have considerable reach.

Members are not, however, completely powerless either. Most counties are still members’ clubs (Durham, Hampshire and as of a week or two ago Northants the exceptions). Members generally have less power than they once did but there are mechanisms for calling SGMs or EGMs within constitutions and if ever there were a time to get the necessary signatures and call a meeting then surely this is it? The typical county member may not look like a revolutionary but they may just have to start thinking like one to save the game as we know it.

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Time for a Change

One of the things that unites most of the cricket fans I know is a shared frustration with the administration of the game we love. For years we’ve seen the interests of fans sidelined in favour of the pursuit of power and money, with cricket suffering as a consequence, and in many ways it has felt as if the game is being wrested from us.

Earlier this week I went to see the film “Death of Gentleman”, which draws on that frustration through the journey made by Jarrod Kimber and Sam Collins, a journey that starts out by questioning whether and/or why test cricket is dying and ends up investigating the stench of corruption around those at the very top of the game. The end result is a thought-provoking film that makes you laugh at times but, ultimately, uncontrollably angry at the custodians of the game (if you weren’t already). It’s powerful stuff and I genuinely think that “Death of a Gentleman” should be mandatory viewing for anyone that loves and fears for test cricket. Excellence of the film aside (and I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t seen it yet, except to say that you can see my head in it at one point), it also has a crucial side effect of spawning the start of a movement for change.

Watching ”Death of a Gentleman” I was reminded of a time, over a decade ago, when a group of us (including Ian and Tom) started a short-lived cricket fanzine. It looked at many of the same issues being discussed today (it was around 2003 when Twenty20 first came on the scene), specifically within the UK, and one of the ideas mooted was some sort of a fans’ organisation. The idea behind that wasn’t akin to a competitor to the Barmy Army, but instead something that went beyond England and international cricket but represented supporters of counties too.

That idea never came to fruition – back in 2003 the Internet was nowhere near as omnipresent or accessible as it is now, and so geographical borders were still a barrier to a global movement, but here in 2015 it is a wholly different story. Now it is possible to see how the issues in county cricket are replicated at test level and how the administrators of both are intrinsically linked. For every English – and Welsh – cricket fan that has complained about the ECB’s Giles Clarke over the years there are hundreds in India who have railed against N. Srinivasan. Both have drawn on their own privilege to make domestic, and then international cricket, their own private members’ club in which they, together with Wally Edwards of Australia, pull all of the strings at the expense of the rest of the world’s cricket boards.

“Death of a Gentleman” focuses the mind on those similarities, as well as the scandalous pursuit of money ahead of spreading the global reach of the game – the latter is surely what custodians should be bound to do – and urges fans to work together for change. It’s early days but the changecricket.com website has a petition you can sign and on Thursday 20th August, the first day of the final Ashes Test, a three minute silent protest (one minute for each of the elite boards) is planned outside the Hobbs Gates at the Oval at 10am.

Why is this important? Well, if you live in the UK and have bought a ticket for an international match in recent years then you’ll probably have noticed that it was pretty expensive, the increases meaning that many fans have been priced out at the expense of corporates. The ECB will claim – on a technicality – that this is not down to them, but without going into the details, their bidding system to stage games is at the very root of the increases in test and ODI match prices. In turn, this expands the brand (yes, brand, it is so wrong for sport isn’t it?) that the ECB has built, and the growing number of series against the big draws of Australian and India (coincidentally the other two boards running world cricket). In short, it maintains and builds upon the power base that exists. Conversely, if you are a West Indies or a Bangladesh fan (amongst others) then you’ll have fewer tests against the big three, and the series you do get will be pushed into as short a period as possible. These things may seem a far cry from the deals that go on at the ICC in Dubai but they are the products of those handshakes and agreements, the consequences for you and me as fans.

Arguably neither a petition nor a protest outside a cricket ground will do much to change the power base of cricket, but the important thing for me is that it’s a start, and all movements need to start somewhere. I can’t be there myself on Thursday, instead I shall have to settle for three minutes of contemplation at my desk, but I hope that lots of fans do turn up and send a signal, however small, to those running the game. And more than that I hope that this is just the beginning, because a movement to try and change cricket for the better is something that I really, really want to get behind: let’s #changecricket.