May 10, 2012

Help! We are not quite as smart as we think

We’re the smart ones aren’t we

We’re the smart ones aren’t we? The intelligentsia of spectators. As out of the whole, wide, wide, world of sports, it’s cricket that has the lowest proportion of mouth-breathers amongst its support.

Seriously, do you think anyone has ever taken a copy of Middlemarch with them to Wrestlemania? How often does a debate about Co Stompé’s footwork break out at Lakeside? Would anyone write the equivalent of Beyond a Boundary about women’s beach volleyball?

Ok, on the flip side, the chances of multiple Pink Panthers being spotted in the stands during this summer’s Olympic dressage are pretty slim. But that’s just a lack of whimsy in the world of equine poncing about. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are dressed like Thelma from Scooby-Doo,” as Oscar Wilde might have said as he watched on from a packed Radcliffe Road Stand.

Yup, cricket is definitely the sport for those of us who are smarter than the average bear.

Except, of course, that’s all a huge exaggeration. We just like to think we’re smarter because the complexity of some of the rules have created an intellectual air round the game. Add in the whiff of public school elitism that still hangs round the way cricket is administrated, terminology as baffling to the uninitiated as text speak is to pensioners and voilà, you’ve made large sections of the game’s potential next generation of fans feel like they don’t have the right shoes to get into this particular nightclub.

It might help if cricket in general, and the county game in particular, was more actively promoted to a mainstream audience. A problem highlighted during the week when this season’s CB40 competition bust into life with a fanfare, which in true English domestic cricket style, was less London Philharmonic Orchestra and more a recorder being played by an asthmatic.

But then the county game has always felt like it had a marketing budget that was in danger of running out if Giles Clarke started taking two sugars in his tea. Because outside of the county grounds themselves, how much promotion does domestic cricket actually get? I can’t remember Danny Baker’s County Championship doorstep challenge being on heavy rotation during the ITV ad breaks. And if you get Tesco Club Card points every time you go through the turnstiles, I’ve never been told.

No one is seriously suggesting anything like that, but more of an advertising presence in the local press might be a start. As after a financial year when several counties have only made a profit due to Memorandum of Understanding payments made by the ECB for ground improvements, it might be an idea that we start trying harder to attract people who will actually use those facilities.

The frustrating thing is that English cricket can't get promotion right. Just consider how perfect Twenty20 is as a brand name. It’s memorable, describes exactly what you’ll get from the product and has an achingly cool combination of letters and numbers that is practically spooning the marketing zeitgeist. Write Twenty20 on a Hoxton PR company’s whiteboard and you’ll have the hipsters tripping over their braces to be the first to lick off the letters.

What makes that all the more impressive is how easy it would have been to get wrong. Just look at the CB40 brand name. You have all the same elements: memorable, descriptive, combination of letters and numbers. Yet CB40 still sounds like a Star Wars droid thought up by the work experience lad at Lucasfilm after he’d been over the pub at Friday dinnertime.

It’s more of that Twenty20 thinking the game needs. Not necessarily the gimmicks: the cheerleaders, walk on music and mascot derbies. We need more of what Twenty20 does best: its ability to communicate clearly and directly with cricket’s potential audience.

You could start with the most basic element of sports promotion – actually advertising when games are being played. Instead it feels like the ECB are basing their marketing strategy for domestic cricket on the film, Field of Dreams. “If you build it, they will come” might work in Hollywood, but unless Frank Woolley magically appears out of long grass in front of the scoreboard, then the new Sainsbury's at Kent’s St Lawrence Ground is only going to attract busy professionals low on milk and students with the munchies.

So with the school holidays approaching is it too much to ask that parents scratching their heads for ways to occupy their kids might find out about one-day games before they see the scorecard in the newspaper? After all, potential cricket supporters might have to learn the lbw law but we can’t expect them to be mind-readers as well.

Kenny Shovel has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses