England's T20 Debate January 12, 2015

Franchises are not the answer

England needs to learn the right lessons from the Big Bash and not turn to a franchise system that would freeze our thousands of committed fans
26

Play 00:41
Dobell: Don't be seduced by overseas leagues

Twelve years after a launch so spectacular that it was dubbed "The summer of love," English cricket is suffering from existential angst about its Twenty20 competition. Envy of the IPL is one thing but jealously of the Big Bash League is quite another.

How can it be that a country with less than half the size of England can put on such an attractive T20 competition even while Australia's stars are detained by Test duty?

To many the solution for English T20 begins and ends with the f-word: franchises. To suggest that these might not represent a panacea for England's T20 competition is to be labelled a Neanderthal.

There are, broadly speaking, two franchise models. The first is the Indian model: franchises being leased from the BCCI on a ten-year period, giving the BCCI a short-term financial boost but franchise profits going to private investors. The second, more plausible in England, is the Australian model.

Here, franchises are owned by Cricket Australia (who offered a 33% stake to private investors, though no one has taken up the offer) with all profits pumped money back into the sport. The Australian model would certainly be more palatable to English traditions.

But neither model would increase the reach of domestic T20 cricket in England. While there is much that England can learn from the success of the Big Bash - the importance of cheap ticket prices, free-to-air television coverage and games coinciding with the school holidays - the notion that the appeal of domestic T20 can be transformed by slashing the number of teams is fool's gold.

England needs to ensure that it learns the right lessons from the Big Bash. It should not forget that, far from halving the number of teams, as supporters of a franchise system advocate, Cricket Australia increased the number of teams playing in its T20 competition.

Under the old Big Bash, run on traditional state lines, Victoria and New South Wales played just three home games a season each. The success of the revamped tournament has been to recognise that allowing Sydney and Melbourne so few matches when both have populations of over four million, was a mistake.

The Big Bash's solution was the antithesis of that argued for English T20: not reducing the number of teams but instead expanding them. By having two teams in each of Melbourne and Sydney, the Big Bash guarantees Australia's two biggest cities eight matches each.

For all the romance of Australia as the nation from the outback, it is one of the most urbanised countries in the Western world. The six cities that host Big Bash teams have a total population of 14 million - 61% of the total Australian population. If demographics are destiny, the demographics of Australia are ideal for a city-based T20 competition. England's, sadly, are not.

While English cricket needs to search for new supporters, it cannot afford to be contemptuous of its existing ones

While the Australian franchise model extended the reach of cricket to more people, an English model would, perversely, have the opposite effect. The most likely franchise system would have ten sides covering nine cities, with London having two.

Let us assume that the eight other cities would be Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Southampton, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff and Durham (and even include Newcastle's population for good measure, on account of its proximity to Durham). These ten teams would be based in cities that accounted for only 22% per cent of the population in England and Wales - a third the figure of the Australian franchises.

So this is the problem that the ECB is confronted with. It has to design a T20 competition for the population it serves - not the urbanised Australian population that it would be much easier to please.

It would be a perverse approach to extend cricket's appeal by making it harder to watch domestic T20. A franchise system played in a block, as many favour, would only be a success if those who do not currently attend matches would be prepared to travel further to watch teams in midweek.

That seems a fantastical assumption, especially as the struggles of the previous T20 structure in England showed that teams cannot attract fans to return for several games a week.

A franchise system would reduce the supply of match tickets to below the level of proven demand for them, which is hardly a sane recipe for success.

Consider Essex fans. They would be expected to travel to the Oval or Lord's, but these grounds already sell-out regularly for domestic T20 - so, within the area that Essex, Surrey and Middlesex currently represent, fewer people would easily be able to see games than now.

For all the difficulties facing English domestic cricket, it is too readily forgotten that support for first-class cricket in England is the envy of the rest of the cricketing world - Australia included.

While English cricket needs to search for new supporters, it cannot afford to be contemptuous of its existing ones. A warning of the dangers of doing so comes from the Conservative Party and Labour, who have long ignored the wishes of their core voters in search of trendier ones. They have lost the former without gaining many of the latter; their combined support is now down to as low as 60%. English cricket cannot afford to deprive those fans who sell-out T20 games at Hove and Taunton of a team to support.

If the rationale is to entice fresh supporters, we already know a guaranteed way of doing so: traditional county rivalries. Think not just of Middlesex-Surrey but the Roses game, which has sold-out Headingley for the last two years, albeit that one of the matches was abandoned without a ball being bowled . In 2014, the attendance at Edgbaston was 6,000 higher when Warwickshire (albeit playing under the moniker of the Birmingham Bears) played Worcestershire than that achieved against any other team.

Two years ago, Bristol sold-out its ticket allocation against Somerset six weeks early. Had it not been for ground redevelopment limiting the capacity, Gloucestershire could have sold far more than 7,500 tickets. Yet there was little of the same buzz ahead of the fixture at Bristol in 2014, which was played in front of only 6,500. The difference? Last year the game was played on May 16, but in 2013 it had been played on July 26.

When this year's T20 competition begins in chilly weather in front of middling crowds, we can expect another bout of hankering for the Australian model. But making it harder for people to watch domestic T20 cricket - the opposite of Australia's approach - would not solve anything.

The shame of England's T20 competition is not the number of teams that compete in it - indeed, even with 18 teams, it is lamentably difficult for fans in Dorset, Cornwall and Norfolk to see live cricket. The problem is that the T20 competition is lumbered with a schedule that doesn't give it a chance to engage new fans, and is hidden behind pay TV.

Rather than try and create a phoney imitation of the Australian model, the ECB would be better off giving the Blast in its current guise a proper chance.

Tim Wigmore is the joint author of a collaborative book on Associate cricket, out in January 2015

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Paul on January 15, 2015, 22:11 GMT

    No franchise cricket please. Definitely need some domestic cricket on terrestrial TV, perhaps a T20 highlights package as suggested. Sky's coverage is superb, but game in danger of becoming a minority sport.

  • Nick on January 14, 2015, 21:16 GMT

    Here's an idea. Instead of pandering to the rich counties why not make the franchises the counties that don't benefit from Test Match status. Help level the cricketing playing field up a bit.

    Derby Leicester Taunton Northants....

  • Android on January 14, 2015, 19:18 GMT

    People suggesting 2 T20 gsmes a week, when are County Championship games to be played?

  • Dummy4 on January 14, 2015, 16:29 GMT

    One thing they could do is get rid of finals day. The semi finals would attract capacity crowd at any of the County Grounds and the Final will always sell out. That's 3 capacity crowd instead of 1. Maybe have the womens' final before the Mens to make a day of it.

    I'd like to see the number of sides taking part increased. Split the total into conferences and play home and away. Play 2 games per week and keep it on the same day each week in the heaight of the summer. Then on to 1/4 finals etc.

    Create some sides in areas of the Country that are not well served by the existing structure. Invest some money in them to help them get established.

  • bill on January 14, 2015, 10:24 GMT

    Heres my twopenneth worth Div 1 9 city based teams at test grounds, div 2 9 remaining counties. 8 games 4 home and away plus play offs 1 v 4 , 2 v 3 plus final.

    Play in 3 week window July august in school holidays, Have div 1 matches Saturdays and wednesdays Div 2 Sundays and thursdays, FTA tv.

    PLay some weekend double headers matches start at 2pm and 6pm. Simple format, promotes quality, all games matter.

  • Android on January 13, 2015, 22:00 GMT

    All those that reckon a short time frame is the way forward obviously didnt read this article. T20 Cup was short format and crowds were going down. Having 1 game every Friday evening on unscrambled Sky would be the way forward

  • Steve on January 13, 2015, 19:33 GMT

    I have raised this issue several times on my blog and can assure you that there's no support for franchises among those contributing comments, nor myself!

    County cricket fans, like it or not, are parochial and old rivalries run deep. There is little love lost between fans of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, to use but one example and to suggest that a composite side might work is unrealistic, to say the least.

    Nor should the climate be ignored. The appeal of a night at the cricket when the sun is shining and the last heat of the day is there to be enjoyed cannot be ignored. It is a far less enticing prospect when wrapped in your warmest jacket..

    You can make the tournament more compact and risk burning out players, or leave it as it is and limit the appeal to the star names from overseas, but there has to be a fine line between envy and realism. The Big Bash is not awash with genuine superstar overseas players and its novelty is the major factor, for now.

    But will it last?

  • Devinderpal Singh on January 13, 2015, 17:36 GMT

    Even though the ECB created T20 cricket, the BCCI reinvented the format and made it so popular, not merely because India won the WCT20 in 2007, though it was a catalyst in India, but due to the way it branded T20 cricket via the IPL, and all of the features they added to their T20 competition, to make it look exciting and fantastic; whether loud music, cheerleaders, the use of a time-out (that also added advertising) etc makes it exciting is a different issue, but their goal was to make it look different to England's stale version at the time (that persists). Now that T20 is viewed so differently, the ECB dislike it, and therefore, they do not want to see it prosper. It's like the BCCI stuck their finger in the ECB's food, and while the ECB is hungry, they refuse to eat something that the BCCI has indulged in. It is as if England's T20 vision has been ruined. That hasn't stopped the ECB blatantly mimicking the IPL e.g. side-events, but rather than cheerleaders, there is fire. Wow.

  • Alex on January 13, 2015, 17:13 GMT

    Imagine an evening highlights package similar to MOTD for the T20 cricket league, whatever the set-up. On one of the freely available ITV channels for example. I appreciate Sky's involvement with cricket, but the way people talk it's as if it owns the game. Cricket has to get back on free TV to compete for attention with whatever Olympics/Wimbledon/Football tournament is usually getting it. Cricket's problem in this country is that it feels like a closed shop. It's all Sky, the ECB, the Counties, Team England, and everybody's got to parrot the corporate line. It's a fantastic summer game, that more people than admit it enjoy, that has a wide appeal across class, faith, ethnicity and gender. The face of the game is, increasingly, T20, an area where innovation of format is still possible. Getting it on free TV must be a priority. The biggest tragedy of English cricket was that the high point of public engagement with cricket - the 2005 Ashes - was also the last on free TV.

  • Dummy4 on January 13, 2015, 16:12 GMT

    @Harlequin - But you overestimate the appeal of "stars". Which uber casual cricket fan has actually heard of Aaron Finch? As there's no chance of an international window - which would be ideal - cricket should use the appeal of local rivalries, aided by moving the competition back six weeks - starting on May 15 is a complete nonsense - and make tickets much cheaper. Add in some free to air (which would be a great advert for Sky) and there's a lot of change even without a franchise format. I am not arguing for the status quo.

    @KingofRedLions Many thanks - the book is out now from amazon and hopefully book shops soon!

  • No featured comments at the moment.