February 25, 2014

Bigger, better? Sorry, no

Why does cricket have to succumb to the marketers' eternal need for everything to be bigger, flashier, and more in tune with youth - whatever that means?

Cricket: it's about lone men and their dogs too © Getty Images

My body has been failing me for years, but the first time I really became aware of growing old was listening to a debate on the future of English T20 cricket three or four years ago. It was essential, one of the combatants insisted, to streamline the competition and amalgamate counties into franchises. It's an argument often heard and, while I don't necessarily agree with it, I can at least see an economic logic. But then he started saying that creating glamorous, heavily marketed franchises with their own brand values was the only way to bring in a younger demographic. It was all about creating a new audience.

And that's when I lost patience. It's not just that the last thing I want to do is hang around with young people - or at least young people who act like marketing people believe young people act. I've put in the hard yards growing old and I've no intention of wasting those years of effort now. I've finally reached an age when nobody even tentatively says at the end of a nice meal out, "Should we go to a club?" Or if they do, they mean some members club with a nice quiet bar. Cricket, though, seems obsessed with young people, and I suppose marketers need to be. They are, after all, as Ignatius of Loyola pointed out, the future. But I always find it odd when an institution risks ostracising the audience it has in order to reach a putative new audience.

There is a strange gigantism in sport. Everything always has to be bigger and better (unless it's the list of Test-playing nations, in which case the principle of the self-interested closed shop overrides all else). Profits always have to be higher. There always have to be more people through the gates, more people watching on television, more games. And, of course, it must be nice to be popular.

But cricket undermined its World Cup on that principle and, although it seems to have recognised that, football is going the same way. There's an argument that the reason the last three football World Cups have been so disappointing is the expansion to 32 teams, and there's now talk of expanding again, to 40. The talk is that that makes it more inclusive, that more countries can take part, but that seems to miss the whole point of sporting contest, and ignores the fact that there is already a lengthy qualification process involving 203 nations (which is more than have seats at the UN). Sometimes smaller and more streamlined is good.

Some aspects of the presentation of limited-overs cricket, I confess, baffle me. I've nothing particularly against the bursts of music at every boundary, and walkout tunes, done with a level of irony, can be charming, but does that really draw in the mythical young people? If they want to listen to music, wouldn't they go to a concert - or "gig", as I believe they call them - or put on their iPods (a modern version of the Walkman), so they wouldn't have the annoyance of the sport and crowd noise getting in the way? Do the bursts of flame - pleasingly warm as they were at that freezing Champions Trophy semi-final between India and Sri Lanka in Cardiff last year - draw crowds? "Did you enjoy the cricket today, son? Who did you see? Sangakkara? Malinga? Dhoni? Kohli?" "Yes, but the best thing was the intermittent jets of fire..."

And even if they do, what does that say about the sport that it needs to be supported by such cheap props? Sport, ultimately, lives or dies on the quality of the competition. I'm not even sure you need the top stars for that: while the best sport sees the very best going head to head, I'd far rather watch two B-grade teams battling out a tight encounter than an A-grade side hammering a C-grade side. This year's T20 championship in England will be a test of that. Playing it on Friday nights over the course of the summer means it can't accumulate the biggest global stars in the way more concentrated tournaments can, but it also means it can become a regular part of people's weekly routine - in the way league football used to be before television started shunting fixtures around. But convenient scheduling and all the gimmicks in the world will mean nothing if the actual cricket isn't worth watching.

And this is where we come back to my old gittishness, and why I should probably be ignored when it comes to anything to do with the future of the game, if that future has to include huge crowds and young people. I went to four days of Test cricket last year - one at the Wanderers, two at Lord's and one at The Oval. This year I missed out on the Lord's ballot and when it came to applying for England v India tickets at The Oval, I hesitated. Last year, I went to the first day of the Ashes Test at The Oval. I confess I was having a bad day anyway, having slept badly and sat on my glasses that morning, but still, the experience of sitting in a cramped seat under a blazing sun without shade was thoroughly unpleasant and, head throbbing, I left at tea.

That's me, I realise, and some people like the sun and the compact beeriness. But my best days at cricket last year also came at The Oval, sitting in the shade for county games with a couple of mates, a few bottles of good wine and nobody anywhere near us. I realise we'll never make anybody a fortune, but I hope cricket isn't just an endless marketing quest for young people but always has a place for misanthropes with flexible working hours.

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • mjstafford on March 4, 2014, 0:10 GMT

    Certainly hit that one with the middle of the bat. Because the marketing man gets paid to be listened to, we have all the aforementioned gimmicks, mascots, trampolinists on the edge of the boundary rope. As well as ridiculous manufactured team names. I am Lancashire through and through not once have I ever referred to them as 'the lightning', its probably fair to say Warwickshire fans don't follow 'Bears' or Kent follow 'the Spitfires'. I wonder how much extra revenue this has brought into the game, none I would suggest. Clubs would have been better pumping this money into developing the junior game and improving academies. That is how you secure your future. Success isn't about how big your bank balance is, it is about the legacy you create, and traditions you keep. Explain the nuances of the longer formats of the game which are best viewed at the weekend and keep the short stuff for midweek. Good health to you all.

  • mmoosa on February 27, 2014, 18:19 GMT

    Lords,Oval,Old Trafford,Headingly,Edgbaston,Sydney,Brisbane,Adelaide,Mcg,Newlands are theatres of dreams,packed houses and occasions to savour for any test lover..the big 10! How awesome it would be if 20 tests were packed out around the cricketing world every year.

  • AshesErnie on February 27, 2014, 10:04 GMT

    At last, someone writing sense. If the young really are the future, why can't they leave the present to us, the wiser and older gits. No teenager is impressed by what cricket administrators think is 'razzmataz' so it's all pointless, irritating guff. And World Cups made of one-sided contests are rubbish, always have been. Best ignored until quarter-finals. Great article.

  • Manxmuppet on February 26, 2014, 16:57 GMT

    You make so much sense Jonathan. In this age of instant gratification and upgrades, the status quo seems to be the last thing anyone wants. Mind you, Marketing is an industry that has been built on making people feel inadequate with what they have so everything needs to be "improved" so you'll part with your hard-earned to buy a new one. Unfortunately most of the so-called "improvements" alienate the current market. Cricket should take a leaf out of Marmite's book: play around with the advertising as much as you like but leave the core ingredients as they are as they've been successful for years.

    Good Lord, I sound like my Grandad used to.........!

  • Thomas_Atwood on February 26, 2014, 15:20 GMT

    Nice article, a lot of what you say applies to me . It seems that cricket's marketing message is, "cricket: its really long and tedious but 20/20 cricket isn't as long and tedious and there are things to distract you whilst the cricket is going on." I don't quite see how this is going to work, but then, I don't work in marketing.

  • fleetwood-smith on February 26, 2014, 11:54 GMT

    Well writ Jonathan - as a 50something who still plays and watches far too much cricket than is healthy couldn't agree more about marketing. I only go to Test matches after disliking the beer-drinking swillathons that ODIs seem to have become at the WACA, my home ground. I was at the first day of the Oval this year also, but managed to stay till stumps - perhaps you didn't like the fact that Watto survived his LBW review and actually made some for a change! Despite my innate objection to T20 (and most weekend cricketers like myself have no great regard for it), I must admit to coming on a little to the Big Bash over the past 2 years. If nothing else it does get the kids watching and wanting to emulate, and has had some good moments this year. But the interest in this neck of the woods with the Scorchers is still because it's State-based, despite the franchise nature of it.

  • dummy4fb on February 26, 2014, 11:08 GMT

    Thank you for this article. It more or less sums up my views on the marketing of the game these days. There always has to be a new gimmick to try & draw the crowds in. Eventually the marketing men & women will run out of gimmicks & where will this new audience go then? Let's face it Twenty 20 / T20 cricket is nothing more than cricket for non-cricket fans. How many of the new audience brought into the game by the 20 over format have decided to give First Class (as opposed to Class A) cricket a go? Very few I would suspect. Having said that, I do realise that in England it is income from the Twenty 20 matches that keeps many counties afloat.

  • Le_Jeu on February 26, 2014, 7:02 GMT

    Spot on, Jonathan. Some of the gimmicks which come out every year in the T20 leagues are plain ridiculous. Even watching a match on telly has become a pain with random TV personalities presenting post match shows who know nothing about cricket. There are cheerleaders dancing away in the TV studios, bless their souls!

    The administrators are hell bent on converting the game from what they perceive as old fashioned, boring and for the fuddy-duddies to something which is nothing more than an entertainment package. It just serves to cheapen the actual cricket being played on the field. I am sure even the players feel the same way. I mean imagine a Chris Gayle waiting for the next delivery having just hit a six, because the jet fires are still at it.

  • ODI_BestFormOfCricket on February 26, 2014, 5:05 GMT

    since last few years, i luv ipl more than any other international matches. When exitement builts at start of ipl, i feel like my brain suddenly wakes from year long dried, boring cricket around the world. The feeling, something which that i cannot explain. I wants 16 ipl teams so that 30 league matches for every team and so atleast 3 month long excitement, entertainment, thrilling last over finishes, fiery discussions create some festive mood. Please BCCI, give us CLEAN IPL only thing expecting from you.