The build up to the 2020 cricket season has not been without controversies. Debate has raged over franchises versus counties, T20 versus The Hundred, and what the future of the game looks like in this country.
Those debates seem slightly more trivial at a time when the ECB is announcing over £60m of support to counties and clubs. Indeed, the very future of the game could be at stake.
For cricket counties, the battle for financial solvency is nothing new, but the delays that covid-19 is imposing on the upcoming season have potentially serious and far-reaching ramifications.
The one blessing that cricket counties have is that their overheads on player wages are much lower than their footballing equivalents. This is however balanced out by having fewer and less profitable revenue streams.
In 2016, the BBC reported that 11 of the 18 counties had levels of debt that were ‘a cause for concern’, while average ECB incomes made up more than half of total revenue for Middlesex, Worcestershire, Kent, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Glamorgan performed better, but had more than £11m of debts written off in 2015, while Durham were forced to accept a £3.8m aid package from the ECB to manage debts in 2016, losing Test host status in the process.
Which brings us onto the threat of delays. For some counties, the deciding factor for remaining financially viable is whether they can sell out their international fixtures. And beyond that, the T20 Blast is the biggest money-spinner outside of money from broadcast, or ECB incomes. The Blast is itself under threat due to the emergence of The Hundred, which guarantees each county an additional £1.3m per year.
The ECB does have a five-year broadcast deal in its back pocket, running until 2024 and worth £1.1bn. It’s conceivable that no cricket being played will have financial knock-on effects on that deal, but protecting its value will be essential if the ECB are to safeguard the future of the game. With rumours of the County Championship being abandoned, there has also been speculation that the broadcast deal could be extended to 2025 to protect its value.
And what of the future of The Hundred? More than ever, the ECB will have to back its product and hope it takes off. The pitfalls are considerable. The Hundred is being launched with the intention of engaging a wider, consumer, non-cricketing audience. The thesis is that by taking cricket mainstream there is an opportunity to attract not only a different kind of fan, but also different kinds of sponsors and broadcasters. It seems inconceivable that it will launch behind closed doors. It certainly wouldn’t be the sort of razzmatazz and explosive impact that the ECB envisaged when announcing its launch date.
We could also see changes to the structure of the game. Long-form cricket still has its place for purists, but it might be that a more packed out, commercially-focused short-form blitz is the future if cricket is to become more financially sustainable.
The ECB will be under pressure to secure cricket’s future in the UK. Counties are simply not as robust as football clubs. They do not have the same reserves to fall back, and typically do not attract the interest from investors that football clubs do. If the season is called off and they lose their one reliable and independent revenue stream, an ECB bailout appears the only way to save some of the oldest sporting teams in Britain.
What will be really fascinating will be the wider response of the sport. Is this the wake up call that catalyses a change in the structure of cricket to create a more financially sustainable model? Cricket is a game of ebbs and flows, requiring dynamism and patience, but right now the sport faces its tallest test yet.