Non-disclosure agreements cloud T20 debate
Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) lasting for 10 years are preventing progress on the debate over the future direction of domestic T20, according to county officials.
The ECB insisted that the agreements were signed before counties could be shown plans for a new competition. But now the counties - most of which are owned by their members - say they are constitutionally, morally and perhaps fiducially obliged to consult them before coming to any conclusions. Several clubs, who are unwilling to be named for fear of being seen to have broken their NDAs, state they would need to hold Special General Meetings before progressing.
While the ECB claims the non-disclosure agreements are due to the "commercial sensitivity" of the discussion, some county executives fear they are an attempt to stifle opposition and present plans for a new tournament as a fait accompli.
It is true that the ECB is anxious to end an argument that has rumbled on for several years, with occasional outbreaks of cricket. The board has told the counties it wants to "reach consensus" on the shape of the proposed new tournament at a meeting on September 14.
But some of the counties say that this timeframe does not allow discussion with members, or any other cricket lovers, or further examination of the consequences of their decisions. They point out that, while sponsors, broadcasters (some broadcasters, anyway), players and the counties have been given details of the potential options, spectators have been informed only by media reports. They also point out that many questions about the new competition remains unclear.
The last time the ECB conducted a consultation process into domestic T20 - the Populous survey of 2012 - it suggested that spectators preferred a predictable schedule that didn't demand too much of their time or their money in the space of a few days. It increasingly looks as if the new competition will see games played every day of the week in a July block.
At this stage, though, there is no official preferred option. The ECB presented five options to the counties for discussion: these range from the 'no-change' option that almost nobody favours, to proposals for a new-team, city-based competition. Increasingly, option four - featuring a city-based competition co-existing with the current NatWest Blast T20 - has emerged as the frontrunner.
Packaged as a compromise - or a wolf in sheep's clothing, depending on your view - it has won over a number of counties (Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and, perhaps, Sussex) that might otherwise have resisted a city-based tournament and seems to have an even chance of gaining the two-thirds majority required to see it adopted as the shape of the season from 2018. The ECB is promising the counties a minimum of £1m each if they do so. It is clear that, officially or not, this is its preferred option.
There are, though, huge questions to answer before anything can be confirmed. What other cricket will be played in the July window while the city-based competition is on and is it not a concern that the quality of the Championship (or Blast competition) will be diluted? What evidence is there that audiences in England and Wales will warm to new teams? Can the money promised really be considered new if it comes at the expense of a watered down Blast (with fewer 'name' players, less interest from broadcasters and sponsors and the sense that it is a lesser competition) and can the money even be guaranteed even if broadcasters subsequently fail to deliver on the estimates that the ECB has received or if they fail to reach their audience target?
Furthermore, won't the gap between the Test-hosting counties and the rest grow if a city-based competition is held only at the bigger grounds and there is no distribution of non-cricket income (bar receipts, for example)? Especially if they are benefitting from the supply of players from smaller counties, without further compensation. Equally, it seems odd that all hosting grounds would be paid a flat fee (far below the amount some sides make for hosting Blast matches) whatever their capacity or hospitality facilities.
It is understood that the ECB has also been asked to provide assurances that the 'independent' broadcast experts utilised to provide information on the likely value of tournaments do not stand to gain should the city-based tournament win favour. The ECB has a close working history with Sky and appears to have valued the existing competition far below comparable events.
Premiership rugby, for example, a sport with similar supporter numbers as county cricket, receives something approaching £40m for its broadcast rights. The ECB currently ascribe a nil value to county cricket and seems to think the Blast is worth as little as £7.5m a year. That's less than it can expect to earn from gate receipts. A city-based competition, despite lasting less than a month and not being offered exclusively, is said to be worth up to £40m.
In the longer-term, the ECB has also been asked whether the international schedule will be cut to make space for the new city-based competition - and to allow England players to take part - and what the cost implications of that might be. Again, if it diminishes the money gained in the next broadcast deal, it would be wrong to view the city-based revenues as new rather than replacement. It seems unlikely that England players will be made available in 2018.
But most of all the question remains: why is the ECB not interested in the input of those that, indirectly, pay the wages of the administrators, the media, the players and the broadcasters? One day, and it may not be a distant day, the spectators will tire of the £6 pints, the soggy chips, the slack over rates that short-change them of their £90 Test tickets and spend their money elsewhere. The ECB disrespects them at its peril.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo