NatWest T20 Blast August 22, 2014

T20 attendances tell two tales

Impressive crowd figures have been revealed for the new NatWest Blast but dig a little deeper and they reveal a different story that should concern county lovers

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Pressure off for Warwickshire

Leonard Cohen once defined a pessimist as a person expecting rain, an optimist as a person expecting sunshine and himself as a man for whom such descriptions were irrelevant: he was already soaking wet.

Perhaps it is the same with domestic T20 cricket in England. While figures produced by the ECB to celebrate record figures in the re-launched NatWest Blast could be used to argue that the game was growing healthily, they could equally be interpreted to argue a worrying shrinkage.

Ultimately, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the domestic game has a tough fight on its hand to remain relevant and solvent. The re-launch and re-scheduling of the T20 games (the majority are now held on Friday nights) has made very little difference.

With a record gate of 23,000 at Edgbaston for NatWest Blast T20 Finals Day, overall attendance will pass 700,000 for the first time in its 12-year history. And, the average attendance figure - 5772 - is up about 12% on the average figures - 5153 - for matches over the last five years. All of which sounds well and good. But when you scratch the surface of the figures, the shine soon wears off.

The average attendance figure this year has actually declined from 6503 per game in 2013 to 5772 in 2014. That is a drop of around 11% per game from last year.

And, when you bear in mind that this season benefited from increased marketing, better scheduling and was designed as the start of a development that would see attendance double over the next four years, it becomes hard to avoid the unsettling conclusion that the mass market - the market that attends football, goes to the cinema and has disposable income to spend in pubs and restaurants - simply doesn't want to buy what county cricket is selling.

For all the unpalatable consequences of that conclusion, it is one that must not be ignored.

It would, of course, be wrong to draw firm conclusions from such black and white statistics. They do not, for example, reflect that 2013 was a rare summer free of football World Cups, Olympics or similar. It does not reflect that the competition in 2013 was blessed with excellent weather. It does not reflect that the tournament followed on the heels of a successful Champions Trophy that promoted cricket and built some sort of momentum for the game.

Equally, there are areas in which the ECB could tinker with the schedule in the realistic hope of improving the figures ahead of next year. For a start, it seems odd that the group stages of a competition aimed at a family audience starts in May - in the middle of exams - and ends just as the school holidays begin. Equally, there are currently 14 group games meaning that some sides play each other twice and others just once. The increase to 16 will put more pressure on the schedule, but cricketers might be advised to look at the fixture list of baseball players before bemoaning their lot.

But it seems fanciful to suggest that such tinkering would provide the silver bullet solution that is required.

And it may well be fanciful to suggest that a move to a franchise, city-based tournament would prove helpful. While such competitions have worked in India and Australia, the model here is not comparable. The negatives might well outweigh the positives.

In an era without live English cricket on free-to-air TV, the role of clubs - the likes of Northamptonshire (who saw their attendances grow by 16%) and Somerset (who will lobby for more games on Sunday afternoons next year) and Leicestershire - is as much to promote the game in areas where it might otherwise wither and die than it is to compete and produce England players. If you take meaningful T20 cricket from such towns, you are jeopardising the game's future in vast regions of the country.

The answer might well lie in a return, a partial return, of cricket to free-to-air television. No amount of grass roots initiatives, no amount of investment in coaching schemes and improved facilities and school visits and photo shoots, can replace the inspirational value of one gripping game on TV witnessed by a fascinated child.

There are many fine players involved in the NatWest Blast T20 Finals Day: James Anderson, Ian Bell, Jos Buttler, Jason Roy and James Vince among them. But it might be relevant that - arguably, anyway - the two biggest names on display are Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff. Both men who built their reputations in an era when cricket was played on free-to-air TV and featured in the 2005 Ashes. More modern players simply cannot compete with the exposure they enjoyed.

A return to live English cricket on free-to-air TV is not, at first glance, imminent. Sky have bought exclusive rights to live cricket under the ECB's jurisdiction until 2019 and they understandably guard their subscription business model and their exclusivity fiercely.

Fair enough, too. At a time when free-to-air broadcasters - even those blessed with public money to spend on rights - showed little interest in the sport, Sky invested heavily in the game and have taken coverage of the sport to a new level. Recent broadcasting deals have resulted in unprecedented investment in the game at every level and seen the ECB lead the world in the development of women's cricket and disability cricket. It would be foolish to portray the Sky deal as bad for the game.

Equally, it would be foolish to portray the free-to-air broadcasters as the guardians of a golden age of cricket. Before the days of Sky, cricket fought for space among busy broadcasting schedules. Channel 4 persuaded the ECB to start Tests as 10.30am one summer - half-an-hour earlier than normal - so it could finish in time not to interrupt the scheduling of The Simpsons or Hollyoaks. Meanwhile, the historic Oval Test of 2005 was interrupted 13 times for coverage of horse racing; the "Botham's Ashes" of 1981 was interrupted by programmes such as Playschool, Chock-a-block and The skill of lip-reading (perhaps ideal for picking-up James Anderson's words of advice to opposition batsmen) while the two Ashes series broadcast by Channel 4 were interrupted, in all, by 33 hours' worth of horse racing. The past is often remembered with a romantic filter.

Unless something changes, the game will continue its gradual but inexorable decline. It already struggles to find space on back pages; it already struggles to find space in tabloid newspapers.

There is a possible solution, a middle path; a third way. Sky have, courtesy of their Pick channel, a free-to-air vehicle for providing "samples" of their shows. They have already experimented with showing highlights of the 2013-14 Ashes series and, in the past, have used the channel to attract would-be subscribers with shows such as Modern Family and Futurama.

If they could be persuaded that their own interests and the interests of the game in England could be served by showing some cricket - perhaps a regular highlights show offering coverage of the NatWest T20 Blast - then perhaps we might see a revival of interest in the game.

It should suit all parties to sustain the game, to encourage another generation of supporters, to develop a new consumer base. But whether it suits all parties to look beyond the next set of accounts, the next report to shareholders and the next bonus, is debatable.

But the evidence of recent months is that the current method is not working. Unless something changes, the game will continue its gradual but inexorable decline. It already struggles to find space on back pages; it already struggles to find space in tabloid newspapers. The Ashes was sealed, at Durham, in front of a ground far from full to capacity. The Investec Test series against India has been played, at times, in front of grounds barely half full. While the likes of the BBC and ESPNcricinfo have invested in excellent county coverage, the general decline in broadcasting of the domestic game is a serious threat to the viability of the sport. At least one county game has been played in front on an empty press box this season.

There is much to celebrate and enjoy in English cricket. There will be much to entertain and excite on Finals Day. The quality of the play remains high. But if cricket is not given the oxygen of exposure it will gently drift into irrelevance. We may not be soaking wet just yet, but we're fools if we ignore the growing evidence of the water rising around us.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Bob on August 25, 2014, 7:21 GMT

    T20 is a totally different game to 50 overs. I believe the only way it (T20) will survive long term is for teams to accept that it IS a young players game, with fielding well and swiftness over the ground essential. In Somerset we have IMO the most talented fielder in the country with speed and sureness of touch - take a bow - MAX WALLER!

  • Dummy4 on August 24, 2014, 17:20 GMT

    I'd like to see what effect the new T20 format has had on attendance figures for the One Cup. I know that will be difficult, as that is new as well. So, compare new 50 over cup figs with last year's 40 overs equivalent. I'll watch T20 on tv, but no way I'll waste an evening going to watch live. I cancelled my county membership after 15 years as no home one day matches on a Sunday. That has meant no one day matches on tv on Sundays either - huge mistake. I'm happy to pay for Sky to watch cricket, but lack of Sunday matches has reduced my interest - bring back a proper one day league played mostly on Sundays!

  • Dummy4 on August 23, 2014, 21:32 GMT

    I never thought I'd read an article on Cricinfo that managed to include references to my two favourite animated series, but there you go. My good friends Guy Incognito and I.C. Weiner would be proud.

    To be honest, the transfer of all this cricket to Sky has been beneficial in almost every way, from the level of investment to the level on analysis to the fact it's actually comprehensive - although I liked Channel 4's coverage the frequent interruptions were a bit of a pain. Even the quality of the commentary on Sky dramatically improved from 2006 onwards, as if they suddenly realised as sole game guardians they would have to make an extra effort to not bore viewers senseless by Paul Allott and Bob Willis droning on and actually inform and entertain them with Michael Atherton and David Lloyd.

    But there is one simple, damning con to outweigh these pros: not everyone can see it. If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one around to hear it, will it make a sound?

  • Nicholas on August 23, 2014, 19:17 GMT

    When will sports writers realise that perhaps we, as a cricketing nation and genuine cricket fans, don't really care for 20:20. Prrsonally, I am a massive cricket fan but will watch a 20:20 game on sky if there is genuinely nothing else of note to watch or do...I have watched 3 games live at the ground since it started and all have been instantly forgettable as they mean nothing most of the time. Make games matter, then perhap we will embrace it more

  • dave on August 23, 2014, 17:25 GMT

    As a kid I remember the cricket scores on the BBC radio news I'm not sure when they stopped even from a very young age I remember being fascinated by them what did they mean etc etc. Any idea when they stopped? At least radio 4 could carry the county scores it would hardly be a costly activity and although its not a youthful demographic its the one that most attends county games.

  • Andy on August 23, 2014, 14:02 GMT

    Cricket is considered slow, boring and complicated by a lot of people in this country (a work colleague once said "what's the point of a sport that lasts 5 days, where there's a chance nobody wins in the end?"). The trick would be getting them to sit down and tune into a quicker, more instant-thrill version of it in the first place. Free-to-air limited-overs cricket would perhaps help to an extent, but the fact is that even a t20 match is relatively long compared to other sports like football, so would take up a lot of a channel's scheduling time. And the trouble with just highlights is you just get boundary-boundary-boundary-wicket-boundary, which doesn't really mean anything.

    In terms of attending games, we're also not helped by the British climate. I myself have sometimes not bothered going to a game I would've otherwise attended if the weather forecast hinted at a risk of rain, because I wouldn't want to make the effort and expense of going to the ground for nothing.

  • Peter on August 23, 2014, 12:21 GMT

    Free to air would certainly help but the best we can hope for is a highlights package. I think that we need to give the Friday night T20 a little more time. One of the problems of changing the format every season is that no one can get into the habit of attending. In the early days of 40 over cricket it was a Sunday League - a format that, at the time was enormously popular - and there was a match televised by the BBC every week. A coherent season would help county cricket enormously. This season has been the most coherent for many years. Give it a good go.

  • Dave on August 23, 2014, 11:10 GMT

    Maybe the ECB should be talking to BT Sport. I have a sneaky feeling Sky will not be showing much cricket at all soon. The IPL? Big deal, a domestic T20 competition, let's not get carried away with the importance of it. It's lost most of the rugby union. It's never shown the best tournament in the northern hemisphere, the 6 Nations. And it's grip on football is loosening. It's only a matter of time before BT snaps up the rights to cricket. And of course BT Sport is free to broadband subscribers with the company

  • Jason on August 23, 2014, 10:39 GMT

    @Nick_Hertfordshire, why not go back to the old format of the B&H/Gillette cup which was a knockout competition featuring the minor counties. The Minor counties have a play off with the top 7 from each division going through, add in Scotland and either the unicorns or Holland to make 32, then it becomes knock a knockout competition, based on a draw system like the FA cup at the end of each round, played on a saturday. This would reduce the RLC, to a matter of 4 rounds plus final, easy to fit into a small window.

    Again toy could do the same with the T20, very much like the FA cup OR Carling cup which uses home and away with best RR between the legs deciding in the case of a draw. it would put more emphasis winning games to proceed you could see 'giant killings' like with the FA cup.

  • Jason on August 23, 2014, 10:23 GMT

    I think people miss the point, T20 isnt relevant to most people, especially those that support serious cricket give it a wide berth if they are over 35, the under 30 crowd are either out with their mates painting the town on the pull, out on a date, or spending time with their partner having been out with people from work on the previous evening.

    Those that do attend, especially in london, use it for corporate entertainment, or they used to mid week but who wants to goto a corporate evening of cricket match on a friday when you have a family at home who you might not have seen much of during the last week. Add on that July/August is when most families go away for 2-3 weeks and you have a set of perfect storms.

    In the end 5600 x £12.50 per game average is a lot better than the county receipts.

    And before anyone suggests a franchise system, it still wont work because people still have the same issues.

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