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Could Social Media Save English Cricket?

Could Social Media Save English Cricket?

For cricket fans the world over, 2005 evokes every superlative in the cliché book. The Greatest Ashes Series of all time, the series to end all series, theatre on an unparalleled scale in the history of cricket.

What a load of nonsense. The 2005 Ashes is the worst thing that ever happened to cricket. It’s the year that cursed a generation.

Ever since that fateful summer, my relationship with the gentleman’s game has been tumultuous, confused and epitomised by endless frustration. Simply, it was too much too soon. As an 11 year old I watched in awe as everyone I knew (yes, even the year 6 cool kids) experienced a sort of religious cricket awakening. Suddenly everyone was talking about the Ashes, everyone wanted to play cricket all day.

But in a sickening twist of fate, what followed that euphoric summer was a gaping chasm and the haunting realisation that everything would simply never be that perfect again.

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A Natwest T20 Blast match between Hampshire and Glamorgan. Image courtesy of Warren Duffy on flickr

Cricket promptly disappeared from terrestrial TV to Sky, depriving the generation that followed mine of the ease of access to the sport that so captured the imagination that summer.

And now here we are, seemingly scratching around from week-to-week in search of a way to save the terribly British game of cricket, right here in Britain.

For those who watched that series, there were so many moments that were unforgettable:

Freddie Flintoff and that incendiary double-wicket over, Kevin Pietersen’s blonde Mohawk, Ian Bell waking drenched in sweat as Shane Warne haunted his nightmares, Simon Jones swinging the ball like it were Mark Ramprakash’s hips, Michael Clarke shouldering arms and having his off stump obliterated, Simon Katich shouldering arms and having his off stump obliterated, the King of Spain, Harmison’s slower ball, Woodworm bats – I’m not sure a single member of my colt team didn’t buy a Woodworm bat in 2005– that summer could not conceivably have been better.

image courtesy of intocricket on flickr

I don’t know what’s better, Freddie Flintoff’s smoulder, or that majestic Woodworm bat. image courtesy of intocricket on flickr

English Cricket has failed to replicate this ever since, and while the move away from Free-to-Air Television has doubtless stifled its exposure, it has been a broader failure to evolve how it speaks to younger audiences that has quickened the sport’s demise.

The Big Bash League has shown the positive impact that television coverage can have on the game – viewing figures and attendances have simultaneously soared in Australia – but there is a tendency to pin all the blame on TV and overlook other shortcomings. This is particularly pertinent with under 16’s in 2017 – they simply don’t consume news and information from the TV screen in the way we did a decade ago.

Cricket doesn’t hold the global appeal of football, and doesn’t have a massively popular and engaging console series like FIFA or Football Manager to fall back on, so it needs to find more innovative ways to engage fans.

You tube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become the nerve centre which drives the news and sporting agenda for young people. If ever there was a time in which TV could be circumnavigated, it is in this age of social media. Other sports dominate these channels – Youtube has even made stars of vloggers who upload videos of them playing FIFA.

It’s incredible to think, but people playing football games in their bedroom pull in hundreds of thousands of viewers every day while many cricket counties struggle to fill out their grounds. Football is omnipresent, people know everything about it, and they are constantly consuming more information about it.

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The Indian Premier League and Big Bash in Australia have made cricket modern and accessible. image courtesy of BubbleOnFire on flickr.

Conversely, cricket is conspicuous by its absence. There is a pervasive, largely unchallenged notion that cricket is a dry, boring sport, something that few would have asserted a decade ago. Has the game become more boring? On the contrary, the perfection of the T20 format has created the perfect bite-size entry point for new fans.

But what has changed is the way we talk about cricket. At its best, cricket ebbs and flows, it provides tension, shock and theatre. But large swathes of the British public seem to have forgotten this. We need to communicate with a modern audience in a language they understand to fight these misconceptions.

Social media is awash with influencers who are interested in sport, not just You tubers and Instagrammers, but what about musicians too? Actors? Young people are constantly engaging with content from these figures and are being influenced by what they see.

Greg James is just one example of the kind of ambassador the sport needs. He’s a fantastic advocate for the game and has landed himself a role presenting on BT Sport. More assets of a similar profile could have a tangible impact on exposing the game.

Why not get influencers involved with England’s players, filming themselves in the nets with Jason Roy or Jos Buttler learning the game? Going along to a match with Greg James? People are so disengaged from cricket in this country that there is a unique opportunity to educate people and rebrand the sport in the process. Cricket is tongue-in-cheek and accessible, it’s a game that lends itself to oddities and humour.

Cricket needs more advocates in the media like Greg James, but preferably with sleeves on. image courtesy of Ric Sumner on flickr

Cricket needs more advocates in the media like Greg James, but preferably with sleeves on. image courtesy of Ric Sumner on flickr

The Big Bash and Indian Premier League are proof that cricket holds mass appeal. I genuinely believe that if we get people watching and playing the game, some will not be able to help but fall in love with it.

The raw materials are there to make cricket a resounding success in England. A formidably talented generation of players are coming into their prime, including the fiery Ben Stokes – heir apparent to Flintoff, and the extraordinarily explosive Jos Buttler, renowned for swatting the ball dismissively out of the ground. The Women’s game in the UK is professional, and has made huge leaps in recent years.

The tools are there to catapult cricket back to the levels of 2005. Social media is just one avenue to achieve this, but one that can make a palpable difference if treated seriously and harnessed effectively by the powers running cricket.

 

Will the Relentless Commercialisation of Sport Continue?

The monetisation of sport in the UK is hitting heights in 2016 that were scarcely conceivable just a few years ago.

Football has been revolutionised by the astronomical money that the Premier League TV deals have brought in. Cricket could be next, following a vote by English cricket counties that paves the way to the creation of an eight-team T20 Franchise competition that would be far more geared towards generating revenue.

The statistics are eye-watering. The summer transfer window outlay for Premier League clubs was an astounding £1.165 billion – breaking all previous records. The TV deal in place for the Premier League is worth an astonishing £10.4 billion. Manchester United recently recorded revenue of £515.3 million for 2016 – up from £395.2 million in 2015.

It seems that everyone is a winner in the world of football. Manchester United have the spending power to splash however much they want on whoever they want. Paul Pogba was signed for an incredible £89m – a world record. Pogba’s own £290,000-a-week wages make him the highest paid player in the Premier League. Even his agent, the erratic Mino Raiola, pocketed £20m from the Pogba deal alone.

Image courtesy of Carlos Chuqulllanqui on Flickr

Image courtesy of Carlos Chuqulllanqui on Flickr

The money set to change hands in cricket is dwarfed by the Premier League, with each country promised a measly £1.5 million a head in TV money – though it’s incredible to think that so much money seems a pittance. Yet consider the model that the English Cricket Board is looking to replicate – that of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and you realise the potential it has.

Cricket is the national sport of India, franchises are owned by celebrities, stadia fill out week-on-week and the biggest and best players are paid very handsomely for their participation. For this reason, it is nigh on impossible for the UK to emulate the IPL from a popularity perspective, or indeed for the money it generates.

The 2016 edition of the IPL was valued at over $4bn – a 19% jump from the previous year. Indeed, according to the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the 2015 edition of the IPL contributed $182m to the GDP of the Indian economy. This is all the more remarkable given that the IPL runs for just seven weeks.

The money available for players in endorsements is also spectacular – Indian legend MS Dhoni pulled in $23m from endorsements alone in 2016 – taking his overall yearly earnings to just shy of $30m.

Image courtesy of Windies Cricket on Flickr

Image courtesy of Windies Cricket on Flickr

If the English version of the Indian Premier League can generate anywhere near the level of interest that the IPL does (a tough task given that cricket is comparatively low down the pecking order in this country) the financial rewards for players are unprecedented. It’ll be tough, but if they get it right, sponsors will flock and with serious financial clout it could really take off.

What this all means is that there is now more riding on sport than ever before. Sport has been elevated from an entertainment and a past time to a full blown and very serious business enterprise.

Brands, marketers, influencers – everyone is going to continue to want a bigger slice of the Premier League pie and other sports are following suit.

Cricket will be particularly fascinating to observe, as the very format of the game is being changed to accommodate fans and create a more marketable brand. T20 is all about excitement and implementing a franchise system will also offer far more lucrative and enticing advertising, sponsorship and marketing opportunities. There is even talk of looking to use a major venue like the Olympic Stadium to host a match – imagine if it came off – making a success of such an event could have a seismic effect on the sport and catapult it back into the mainstream.olympic-stadium

And yet the flip side of this is the risk that is now attached to sporting ventures. There is so much money being poured into sport that a wrong slip can lead to disaster, we have seen examples of football clubs (think Leeds and Portsmouth) succumb to mismanagement of their finances. With more money changing hands than ever before, it is worth wondering considering how long it may be until such a situation arises again.

Reputations also matter more than ever before. With so much money invested in clubs and players, brands and sponsors want to know that their investment is getting the respect and return they feel it deserves. The margin for error is miniscule and the potential ramifications of any mistake are substantial.

There is more at stake for sporting brands than ever before, but what this brings is opportunity. Manchester United are evidence of how a brand alone can now pull in extraordinary revenue, regardless of on-pitch achievements. Whether it is sustainable or not in the longer term, it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.