Some of the world’s best T20 players have been vocal in their criticism of 20-over cricket in England (and Wales) in recent weeks and months, many of them suggesting that the ECB should follow the IPL’s lead and switch to a franchise or city-based competition to reignite the nation’s appetite for the format on a domestic level. But are the likes of Kevin Pietersen, Eoin Morgan and Muttiah Muralitharan missing the point?
Yes, we get that there is more money in the IPL, and all the world’s big names – and Rikki Clarke – are falling over themselves to get a contract with an Indian franchise while we in England have to make do with Usman Khawaja, Johann Myburgh and James Franklin as overseas ‘stars’, but while the cream do showcase their talents in front of 90,000 at Eden Gardens, I would argue that the overall quality isn’t too dissimilar. The amount of dross (read: unknown, and frankly rubbish, Australian cloggers brought in by their Antipodean compatriots who have been hired to coach the majority of franchises) that get to play alongside the box office names like Chris Gayle, MS Dhoni, Pietersen et al drags it all down.
The main advantage that the IPL has over what is currently named the Friends Life T20 competition is clever marketing which ensures that broadcasting revenues are worth billions rather than millions and that every ground is packed to the rafters with punters paying affordable prices. The majority of Indian people are not rich, and yet the IPL is accessible to that majority, with a large proportion of tickets available for around 300 Rupees (about £3.50 at current exchange rates). The secret isn’t necessarily to have all of the best players in attendance – many of the original stars of the first IPL have long since retired – but to make sure that it’s a spectacle regardless of who’s on show.
Head back to England and supporters who have booked tickets months in advance for Surrey v Hampshire at the Kia Oval (capacity 23,500) have paid £20 a head, while those foolish enough to turn up and pay on the gate despite a ‘constant rain’ forecast were parting with £25. Just 6,000 tickets were sold in advance, although Surrey claim sales of 15,000 for matches on Thursday and Friday of the same week. It’s a far cry from where it all began, back in 2003, as the Twenty20 Cup. Grounds up and down the country, including the biggest venues at the Oval and Lord’s, were sold out for every game to witness something new, something a bit different, something quite exciting.
Most of us at 51allout couldn’t give a toss about T20, really, which is fine, each to their own. I’m probably the main exception, but I’m left pulling out what little hair I have left on my head with the utterly senseless marketing and ticket policies of counties since the format’s inception. The inaugural Twenty20 match was Hampshire v Sussex at what was then known as the Rose Bowl. The place was packed at £10 for adults and £1 for children, not a seat left with thousands stood around the back of the stand as an impromptu overflow. County chiefs saw pound signs light up in front of their eyes when they recognised the monster they had created.
At the time, basic economics dictated that putting up ticket prices was a perfectly sensible policy. When demand outstrips supply, make the supply cost more and make the most of it. However, over time, it has appeared as though the counties – with a massive helping hand from a nonsensical ECB fixture list – have been gradually pushing the boundaries of what supporters will pay for an evening’s entertainment.
Even though the group stages are condensed into the space of four weeks, with ten games per county, it doesn’t need rocket science to spread the five home games out over that period. Surrey were scheduled to play three of their five home games in the space of four days this week (Sussex last night, Kent on Thursday and Middlesex on Friday), which is insane enough at the best of times. Throw in Monday night’s rearranged game against Hampshire (for rather more tragic reasons), and they’ve now got four of their five home games in a week. Little wonder that they’re nowhere near attracting big crowds for any of them apart from Friday’s London derby. When fixtures are released, supporters will pick and choose their games based on convenience. If you’re taking your family to T20 cricket, why would you do so on three or four occasions in the same week, paying in excess of £50 each time?
It’s fair to say that the counties have been particularly unfortunate this ‘summer’ with the weather, and in particular the timing of it, with 12 of the 68 games played in this year’s competition having been rained off and a further seven having been affected by the weather and decided by Duckworth/Lewis. That’s 28% of games affected to varying degrees by the rain which, financially, has hit the counties very hard indeed. Many rely on T20 income to survive year-on-year, and the ECB will probably be increasing handouts to the worst-affected in the coming months.
However, the weather isn’t the only thing keeping fans away from the game. Back in 2003, ticket prices were cheap in order to attract a new ‘family’ crowd to the game with an exciting new format. Now in its tenth year, T20 attendances are at their lowest ebb, and yet the prices have never been higher. Essex get away with charging up to £30 for their matches at Chelmsford because the capacity is so small and they still sell out, but under-16s – Essex’s future support – are charged £15, and thus are being priced out. They’re already largely unable to go to international cricket because of the eye-watering sums of money being demanded for tickets, and now it’s extending to the most attractive games on the county circuit.
Clearly I’ve picked up on the most expensive end of the scale there, and going through each county’s ticket prices, there are some counties who are doing all they can to get bigger crowds in for T20 games. Nottinghamshire, for example, were charging just £13 for last night’s game against Lancashire, but their situation also requires context because they have been awarded a Test match every summer for the forseeable future, so can probably afford to take a hit on T20 ticket revenue. Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Glamorgan are other counties who appear to have taken a more pragmatic view this season, having spotted the downward trend, but they are certainly among the minority.
Surely the policy-makers at the other counties can’t ALL fail to see that if they reduce the ticket prices, they’ll have more chance of filling their stadia and then making up any potential ticket revenue shortfall with crap beer at £4+ a pint. It’s simple economies of scale, and yet simple economics don’t seem to enter the thought process at all. Hampshire were getting 9-10,000 for T20 games in the early years. Saturday’s game against Surrey saw a season’s-best attendance of around 5,000, despite excellent weather conditions.
Ultimately, the reason for the gripes of KP, Morgan and Murali are because they’ve become accustomed to playing in front of packed stadia full of adoring fans in India (having done the same in England before the IPL came to the fore), and it doesn’t quite feel the same going back to Bristol with 1,500 hardy souls making very little atmosphere at all.
T20 cricket in England – the World Champions in that format, lest we forget – does not need a franchise system that would get very little support. It needs sensible ticket pricing that gets cricket grounds up and down the country full and vibrant again. Unfortunately, that might involve the eating of some humble pie, and – unlike empty seats – we already know that particular item is in short supply on the county menu.