June 27, 2014

Headingley's challenge to get the crowds back

The ticket prices were reduced and there was the chance to watch home-grown players in the Test side. What more can Yorkshire do to woo spectators for five-day cricket?

Sri Lanka fans added colour to the Test but where were all the locals? © PA Photos

My home town isn't exactly a teeming urban metropolis, and the surrounding countryside could hardly be described as densely populated. But my local cricket club still manages to put out four sides on a Saturday, another midweek, with enough volunteers left to run a range of junior teams from Under-9s through to U-18s.

The main league that the club plays in has eight divisions, almost a hundred teams, and is only one of a number of leagues that operates in the area. Our local newspaper might be increasingly dominated by adverts, but it still finds space for match reports that cover 2nd XI games between villages you'd struggle to locate on a map. And when an international or domestic game is being televised, my local pub will normally be showing it on its large screen to an audience ready to tell you, from the comfort of their bar stool, exactly where everyone is going wrong.

Yet if I'm honest, where I live has always been more of a rugby league area. By Yorkshire standards, at least.

But then anyone who saw coverage of the recent Headingley Test could be forgiven for thinking the entire region was only interested in other sports. Certainly the two days I spent watching from sparsely populated stands didn't marry up to the interest in cricket I know exists in Yorkshire. Somewhere along the line a gap has opened between interest and attendance.

It might be that the gap is limited to Test cricket. The next game at Headingley - a domestic T20 clash with traditional local rivals Lancashire - was announced as a sell-out while England and Sri Lanka were still playing in front of a sea of empty blue seating. An indication that the Yorkshire public still love cricket, or confirmation that they remain stubbornly parochial, depending on your point of view.

It's tempting to suggest that the poor attendance for the Test was in part down to dissatisfaction with an unsuccessful national side and a management set-up that hasn't exactly endeared itself to the public in recent months. But in reality, attendances at Headingly Test matches have been disappointing for a number of years, long before England fell apart like a backfiring clown car in Australia this past winter.

Last summer's Test against New Zealand saw an especially small crowd; although this year's attendance feels more disappointing given the presence of three Yorkshire players in the England side, and crucially, a significant reduction in ticket prices.

It's hard to see what more Yorkshire could have done. The message has been broadcast long and hard to the wider Yorkshire cricket community that the club is in serious debt and needs income from international games to secure its financial future. And from a spectator point of view this was certainly the best staged Test I've attended at Headingley. Perhaps all that's left is for prices to be dropped even further.

The fact that crowds were slightly higher this year might suggest that Headingley's lowest ebb has already been reached. But when Yorkshire's current staging agreement with the ECB runs out in 2019 there needs to have been a significant improvement for the right to host international games not to pass to other counties with better facilities, ambitious management and local populations hungry for a chance to see Test cricket on their own doorstep.

Headingley might have history on their side; hundreds, possibly thousands, of committed local clubs like the one in my town within its borders; and famous ex-players to trumpet its cause in the media. But no one has a divine right to host international games.

My heart tells me that Yorkshire will find a way to get the crowds back, that they will keep international cricket at Headingley, and with it the financial means to help Yorkshire out of debt. But after spending another few days in the half-empty stands of a Headingley Test match, my head is struggling to work out just how that'll be achieved.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses

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