It sometimes feels like cricket has spent more time ‘dying’ than being played over the last decade, and that state of perpetual existential crisis is only intensifying as the ECB’s new The Hundred competition looms ever larger.
The cricketing public may be anticipating this brave new world with all the enthusiasm of a medium pacer about to trundle in to bowl at Jos Buttler, but what does it mean for the 18 first-class counties?
The Hundred presents both a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge because the advent of franchise cricket will threaten the identity of clubs whose heritage has been woven into the fabric of the game for 130 years. An opportunity because the new competition does not begin until 2020, which gives them one final season to market themselves as bands in their own right to audiences old and new.
The death of country cricket has been much exaggerated. The 2018 Vitality Blast competition drew record aggregate attendance figures in excess of 950,000, compared to 883,000 in 2017, which was a 7% increase on the previous record set in 2015. Run rate at the league stage of this year’s Blast was 8.88 runs per over, the highest of any T20 league globally. The Blast is an exciting product, and counties are showing that an audience can be attracted to watch domestic cricket. The 2019 Blast should be the first to break the one-million barrier in ticket sales.
Ironically, the increasing popularity of the Blast has come in spite of a shoestring marketing budget that has prevented it from competing with the Big Bash and IPL. Attracting more spectators is the key to the long-term survival and financial viability of the domestic game. The ECB has decided it must attract a completely new audience by devising a new cricketing format yet the evidence shows that counties can find a willing audience for T20 if they get the formula right.
The coming year will be crucial for counties. If they promote their T20 offering, through cleverly targeted marketing and PR campaigns, they can attract new fans even if they lack the resources of the ECB’s £41m Hundred.
Cricket’s absence from free-to-air television means that counties need to be creative. Targeted media engagement, community campaigns, and innovative deployment of players are all ways that cricket can target specific sectors to drive interest.
Counties should build on the momentum built by the growth of women’s cricket. Of the 26,000 tickets sold for the Women’s World Cup Final, around 50% were bought by women, and thousands of women across the country took up the sport in the aftermath of the tournament. Counties with a women’s team have a great PR asset, but how many are getting the most out of it?
The Big Bash identified that the gateway to attracting a family audience is interesting mothers in the game. By targeting family sites, women’s titles and mummy bloggers, it’s possible to spread a message quickly through word of mouth and attract larger family audiences. Cricket is a wonderful alternative day out, but somebody needs to be making the case for it to those audiences, rather than getting stuck in a cricketing echo chamber.
That is where counties need to get smart. It is not fair to expect an in-house Press Office, whose bread and butter is dealing with cricket journalists, to devise and execute a strategy to reach mummy bloggers. Or to deliver a coordinated PR campaign to target students, persuading them that a day at their local cricket ground makes a perfect post-exam celebration. Or to think how local businesses can be reached through the media, turning T20 into a corporate team bonding opportunity.
The ECB has decided it needs to find a new audience for cricket and a new way of thinking about the sport. But long-suffering cricket fans should not be taken for granted or ignored. Counties that can find a way to reaffirm their identity can attract new members. Each county has its own ‘brand’: The Oval’s party atmosphere, the sanctity of Lords, the carnival Finals Day feeling at Edgbaston or the charm of Hove and the County Ground. Counties don’t need to be franchises to build a recognisable identity that can appeal to supporters.
Engaging BAME communities more effectively, particularly South Asian communities, is perhaps the greatest challenge that is yet to be solved. Almost 40% of recreational cricket in the UK is played by South Asians, but only 4% make it as professionals at county level. The ECB have launched a South Asian Action Plan, but with more British Asian players coming to prominence, counties could do more to launch community projects to engage these audiences.
Surrey batsman Arun Harinath has family roots in Sri Lanka, and as well as working for the PCA, and writing for Wisden, he has recently launched a cricket podcast, The 12th Men. He has an interesting perspective, which is worth considering:
‘There is a definite disconnect between South Asian communities and professional cricket in the UK. A hearts and minds campaign is needed to change perceptions. There is plenty of cricket played in Asian leagues here in the UK, but many clubs feel ignored by counties, while young cricketers do not feel that there is a pathway to making it professionally.
‘Cricket needs to establish itself as the essential summer sport by re-engaging with BAME communities and by reconnecting players with fans. Cricketers aren’t visible enough in the UK, but if we can give them a greater profile, and give youngsters role models to look up to then there is a big opportunity for counties to bridge that disconnect and find a home for those communities. Different audiences need different messages, and hopefully counties are starting to realise that.’
By seizing the narrative over the coming season, counties can consolidate their brand, reassure members, and entice new audiences into their grounds. Cricket is becoming more innovative on the field with every passing season. If counties can replicate that same innovation off the field in the way they sell their brand to potential audiences they can make 2019 their PR Moment.