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No 103, Sept 3 - The Grumbler's County Cricket Newsletter
🟤 The County Championship is back 🟠 All the previews, analysis 🔴 The sad demise of Cricinfo 🟢 Middx, Surrey, Warks sign key overseas stars 😔 Analysis of you-know-what 🔵 Finding Dwayne Leverock
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” Woody Allen
When I was young my career plan was simple.
Sports reporter for a local paper in early 20s. Anything I could get
Football match reporter for a national newspaper, late 20s. Broadsheet preferably. Write the flowery, intelligent stuff
Get out before the stress and nonsense destroys me. Maybe about 50
Write long, thoughtful, chin-stroking pieces for a cricket magazine until retirement
Of course, this was before the digital revolution that sucked the life out of the traditional business model for print media and gutted the local press. And, of course, life got in the way.
This week, he got let go from Cricinfo. David Hopps went earlier this year. George Dobell left some time earlier.
This concerns me for a few reasons. Firstly, the site was a true pioneer in cricket and digital sports content, its coverage of the county game has been essential. Losing three people of this calibre is beyond careless. It suggests a critical change of business focus.
Secondly, these reporters have the necessary experience and ability to shine a light on stories the powerful would like left in the shadows. Or sum up its true value at a time of existential questions. And, yes, much of this perspective comes with age.
I am both weary and sceptical of being told the true context of a news story whether it be cricket, sports, politics or otherwise, from someone who only has a received (or read) opinion or has not seen enough to identify the historical signal from the noise. My time teaching very clever, diligent twentysomething Masters students at a sports university has shown me, once again, booksmart is one thing but true wisdom comes with experience.
Ironically, journalism’s newest threat, AI such as Chat GBT, can now provide endless writing on any subject. But it is all bland, functional and based on a wide, shallow and received (not experienced) view of events. So we need thoughtful wordsmiths more than ever and somehow the pace of red-ball cricket has always allowed its writing enough space to breathe. (Is there a Cardus or Swanton of football or rugby union?)
And, lastly, it suggests that No 4 will never happen because words just do not sell anymore. Or at least not the ones I want to write. And not at a price I can tolerate given my weakening value in the labour market.
There is still plenty to be written in SEO-focused, make-em-click sports writing. I am doing a bit myself.
But I bash that out. This creation of this newsletter dominates a full day each week. The thinking time takes considerably longer.
It is dependent on no one. There is no access to be taken away, no bills reliant on it and my self-worth is not founded on growing it. As I have said before, I’m busking. I am going to sing anyway so throw me some coppers if you want to.
We need quality media in every area in this country and we need to stop propping up a business model based on vacuous attention and outrage.
The likes of Paul Edwards is the antithesis of this. Thankfully he can still be read in the Cricketer.
Anyway, the County Championship is back. We have a month to go and many issues to resolve. Not least the title.
Let’s enjoy the last of the summer and the essence of the game while we can.
Also, I have set up a County Cricket Chat space on Reddit - r/CountyCricketChat
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Players - signings, moves, contracts etc
One-Day Cup and Championship
Everyone should celebrate Durham's comeback. They were shamefully treated by the ECB. The penalties in sport for racism compared to other issues are pathetic. It is especially galling when financial or commercial 'crimes' supersede questions of morality.
Div one previews
Click each team name for a different story
Essex vs Middlesex (to follow)
News, Views and Interviews
Before we start, fill up the Cricket Supporters Association’s latest survey. It is important.
Many football clubs have done this in the past. It never ends well.
If you want to apply to be his replacement, go here
Whether you like him or not, here is someone worth listening to. Bransgrove made a big change at his county by putting his money and business acumen to work. He told the ECB where to go too. "At times I even wondered if they wanted us to perish," he told the Mail.
Bransgrove has a reputation as a Marmite character but, still, that is a staggering quote about a governing body given he was trying to grow his county. Alas the pre-Richards’ ECB only wanted their change their way.
‘When I came in Hampshire had basically run out of money and had nowhere else to go,” he adds.
Now they are getting an Ashes test. Hampshire are not perfect (especially in the ‘spirit of cricket’ column) but look at where they were before Bransgrove and where they are now.
Love this. A young man who is having a go. No privilege here from what I can see.
This is not enough. In a world of video games and doom-scrolling on phones all day, you need a greater reason to come to something that is alien to a large proportion of the younger population. It is not as though schools provide an early experience in the game as they did.
Same job. Same pay. End of.
This is not cricket but it is relevant. We have just had the World Athletics Championship all over free-to-air television for a fortnight. Like cricket outside of India and Australia, track and field is struggling for a foothold in the modern sports media landscape. Here’s how he would grow it. Anything we can learn?
I left this until the end because, frankly, the situation makes me weary and sad.
Inertia was always part of the strategy. “It’s going nowhere” was a phrase trotted out well before there were any metrics to support it. The emphasis was on pushing it through, throwing the kitchen sink at it then making sure no-one could touch it until there was some ‘success’ you could point to. And if it did not come naturally, massage the numbers a little until it does.
Hence the unilateral deal with Sky negotiated with Teflon Tom Harrison just before he left. Multiple reports suggest the ECB wanted a 10-year deal but got three. I wrote at the time that, in the long term if the event is taken to maturity, this deal was the death warrant for county cricket. I see no reason to change that view.
If they are painting you-know-what as a success on the evidence of three years of financial losses and feather-bedding then it will only encroach further and further into the traditional heartlands of cricket in this country. Every other T20 event has quickly grown in the number of franchises and games. The marketers who run sports these days always expand their events to the point where they start to destroy it. Then, just maybe, they pull back
Eventually, this parasite (to the international game for its marketing budget, to the county game for players) will become strong enough to take over its host, especially when it has been afforded such lavish external life support.
Once the franchises create their own academies and player pathways (or are sold to IPL conglomerates who can create satellite centres in this country) it is over for the county game. There’s no point in paying £1.3m to each county when you are doing the job yourself. Just watch that payment get scrutinised and whittled away in the years to come if you-know-what is PR’d as the only future path for the game.
How the hell the Telegraph can say the time for a ‘sooped up county T20’ “has passed” when no one else plays the new format I do not know. But then that article also blames the counties, not the ECB, for the English game spurning the chance to ‘own’ the T20 revolution they invented.
If you want an even-handed piece on where we are read Elizabeth Ammon’s piece in the Times.
From the start, we have been lied to about the cost of the event. Those who believe audited accounts can not include a certain ‘shuffling’ of money into convenient columns at convenient times are naive or need to employ a more creative accountant. You-know-what needs to pay the men more to attract the stardust it still lacks and it needs to pay the women more because they have proven themselves a major part of the attraction. Then there is the cost of the inevitable expansion, for a start more franchises. So, how does it grow without incurring more and more losses? And just how much is sustainable?
Already, the sights have been lowered as key targets have not been met. It is not the best v best that was promised and now its ambition is to be “second-best” behind the IPL. I do not remember that phrase cropping up in the spiel Harrison and Graves were spouting five years ago.
Again, there is no problem in losing money to connect with a new audience that sustains the long-term future of the sport. Right now I am consulting with the governing body of a major global sport wishing to enter a new overseas market and I am planning a major loss leader. And, yet again, the ECB are right to be looking to make a connection with a new generation. They should have been doing it decades ago.
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While it is not my thing, Love Island stars and assorted razzmatazz are considered integral to this process. (As part of this job, I am currently researching influencers in South East Asia. It is a world of smoke and mirrors but it is part of modern sports engagement.)
Also, we must always remember the counties get 40 to 60 per cent of their funding from the ECB in exchange for the long, hard graft of supplying all the international players whose exploits make the money at present.
But, yet again for the people who continually troll me, the weakening demand from television for the international game meant something had to change.
I interviewed David Murray for my podcast a few years ago and he is a voice I listen to when it comes to sports media rights and investment. See his post above. Basically, it comes down to this. Whether it is more money, outside Private Equity investment or sale, the future of this event is already a net loss to the traditional fabric of English cricket. And yet it must expand because, firstly, it can not stand on its own two feet as it is and, secondly, it is not fulfilling its full purpose (beyond audience growth that may or may not be a result of a vast marketing spend) as it is.
For me, this can only be achieved by:
Further consuming the rest of English cricket, including the international game
Selling out to outside interests, such as private equity, thus losing control of the sport in this country.
Some sort of co-ownership where counties have a stake in the event’s growth
There is no co-existence at present. What we have right now is subjugation. The Championship and one-day competition are used to muddling through. But the T20 Blast is a crucial revenue stream for counties and that audience has been hit by the demands of the tournament-that-shall-not-be-named. If you accept my premise that it must grow further then the Blast will only suffer even more. The health of the counties will sustain cut after cut after cut and eventually be allowed to bleed out. Or, worse still, kept alive but bedridden with a drip merely sustaining a pulse for a privileged few.
Just look at which events are being hit because of the World Cup next year, according to the Telegraph.
Championship - pushed the margins even further
Blast - takes biggest hit because of the World Cup.
I really do not know how the tournament-that-shall-not-be-named can be trumpeted as a success when the playing field is so skewed towards its every whim.
Given the 2019 World Cup final showed a strong residual interest in cricket despite being stuck behind a paywall for decades and a marketing budget PER GAME that exceeds Surrey’s Blast PER SEASON, this event should be stellar.
Sure, there has been growth in interest, ticket sales and a more diverse crowd. These are good things.
But you can say all that for the Metro Bank One-Day Cup too, albeit at a lower level, with absolutely zero support.
David Griffin posted a video asking for real numbers so we can assess the impact. Alas, this process has been horribly handled throughout, hence we find ourselves in camps.
According to this podcast, television viewing figures are up eight per cent and ticket sales grew by 15 per cent. If these are the modern version of BARB figures then, despite concerns over their validity, they are industry standard and independent. But is that increase on last year's 12 per cent downturn in viewership? In which case they are down four per cent on Year 1, surely a big disappointment. Sky’s money is critical but the grow-the-game target, something we should all get behind, is based on free-to-air television and that part has not been renewed yet.
As for the 15 per cent ticket sales growth, a less trustworthy figure given the ECB’s track record. The Blast group sales were up by exactly that number in 2019 and Middlesex v Surrey saw 27,773, a record for a T20 game (see above) but it was not deemed a sufficient reason to support that event. So when, exactly do ticket growth numbers matter?
Here are some numbers I would like to see:
What is the profit/loss-per-spectator for the Blast and you-know-what once business costs (especially marketing) are truly accounted for?
What is a realistic lifetime value calculation for both sets of fans, accounting for both the youth and depth of support in each
Overall, what is the average revenue per ticket versus Blast? If the latter is, say, twice as expensive then, revenue-wise, a Blast spectator is worth 2x a you-know-what spectator in terms of the bottom line
Of course, if we were dealing in a world of trustworthy numbers, I would want to counter that with a calculation that gives ‘a multiple’ to tickets sold to key demographics (eg primary school children).
And here’s a couple of other questions
If this steadfast, new audience has been created and is not just an ephemeral or cannablised crowd looking for a cheap night out in the holidays, what do they do for the next 11 months?
And, finally, here's a good one, if you could create you-know-what now (without the star players, other countries ignoring it, the flat paywall TV rights deal, the lack of a free-to-air renewal and the loss of all the key ECB staff who behind it, let alone the devisiveness) would you still create it? What would have you done differently?
I could go on and on. But I have to stop somewhere.
The story of this newsletter
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