Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The depressing reality of cricket's finances...

My main sporting passion is cricket, I know many people don't 'get it' but for those of us who enjoy it it really is the king of sports.  My passion extends to all forms of the game, throughout the summer my boss (Somerset fan) and myself (Warwickshire fan - for no logical reason other than I chose them at a young age) will be discussing cricket throughout the working day, much to the annoyance of our three female colleagues.  It doesn't matter whether it's a championship game, the Twenty20 or pro 40 we'll still be following it.  The pinnacle is of course when England are playing and in particular when a test match is taking place.

Test matches in England are a fantastic experience, I've now been to three and plan on going to many more over the coming years.  Not one of them has had great weather yet the ground has always been full despite the conditions.  Granted I do chose the premium tests (even if not at the premium venues) but I would say even the lower profile tests would still be close to capacity on most occasions given favourable forecasts.  Unfortunately though this is needed, as from my limited experience, county games don't get anywhere near the sort of audiences one would expect they'd need to survive on their own.  

This however is not the case in other countries... it is not the test matches that subsidise other forms of the game, it is the one day and Twenty20 internationals that do.  I'm not even just talking about the lowest end of the scale - Zimbabwe are incurring huge losses just to host test cricket again - it is a problem even in established test nations.  Former Sri Lanka star Muttiah Muralitharan has recently spoken out about this:

The sad thing about this is that it is true.  Currently Sri Lanka are playing Pakistan in a test match, this is a bad example because it is being played in Abu Dhabi (a neutral venue) as Pakistan still aren't hosting games due to the terrible terrorist attack a few years ago, but in the pictures of it you can't see a single person sat in the crowd.  The stands also looked rather bare when Pakistan toured the West Indies earlier this year. I know this isn't the most academically correct way to be analysing things (revenue comes in from broadcasters and sponsors - many people may stay at home to watch it), but I reckon it gives a pretty good indication of it's popularity and is quite commonplace in world cricket.  It is a reality that unless something is commercially viable then it will not succeed in the long run.  The problem as an English Test Cricket fan is that you need all of the countries to be prospering in order to provide the competition, but if things continue then there is less incentive for the top players to play in test matches.  

In the world at the moment it is possible for cricketers to get rather rich - but this mainly comes from participating in the Indian Premier League (the most high profile domestic Twenty20 competition) and to a lesser extent playing in other Twenty20 tournaments around the world.  The international game cannot quite compete with the riches that the IPL can offer, as such younger players have a greater incentive to hone their skills to fit the games shortest format rather than it's longest.  Even those who perform in both often prioritise their IPL commitments.  I am not going to say that Twenty20 or the IPL is a bad thing, as anything to get more people interested in cricket should be tried, I just worry there is too much focus on the short, easily consumable format.  They are set up to make as much money as possible, often meaning they are too long and draw focus away from other aspects of the game.

I can't envisage a situation when England stop playing Australia for the Ashes, or India/South Africa stopping touring, there is too much history with each nation.  However those doing less well may struggle in years to come and as a result the financial pressures may take their toll.

One great idea to improve Test Cricket's marketability and appeal is to host a "Test Championship" every four years between the four highest ranked teams.  This would give all nations something to strive for (not just becoming #1 like England managed), but also making the top 4 (similar to the English football Premier League).  Those on the fringes at 5, 6, 7 and 8 (notionally currently Sri Lanka, West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand - although Australia have been flirting with 5th recently to the gain of Sri Lanka) would really get a real target, something that could be used to inspire crowds as well as the added marketability of the championships themselves - potentially reviving interest amongst fans.  In England there seems to be real appeal for such a tournament, probably due to the current status as World Number 1, however it appears that the ICC are having a change of heart - motivated by the broadcasting partner.  The first tournament was provisionally going to be staged in 2013, however now they may be replacing this with the Champions Trophy (a 50 over tournament that is low on most people's list of preferences as there is also a 50 over World Cup that has much greater prestige).  In my mind this is a real shame and I can't help wonder if it is motivated by the fact that India (the games big financial power) have recently been annihilated 4-0 in the test series here.   I really hope the powers that be have a change of heart. 

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