October 30, 2007

Cricket is not a business

Why the ECB's new chairman, Giles Clarke, is wrong



Clarke: "I was portrayed as a combination of Hitler and Attila the Hun for taking cricket off terrestrial television, but it was the right thing to do" © Getty Images

A month after being elected as the new chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Giles Clarke has just made his first mistake. Talking to Mike Atherton in the Sunday Telegraph, Clarke said: "Cricket, ultimately, is another business."

No, it's not. The bottomline in business is profit; the bottomline in sport is a mixture of success and entertainment. Cricket lovers might argue about the balance between those two ideals, but they wouldn't devote much of the conversation to the merits of profit, which is sometimes necessary in sport, and seldom sufficient. How many India fans would swap the World Twenty20 trophy for some black ink on the BCCI's next balance sheet?

To be fair, Clarke soon showed, when Atherton protested, that he is aware that sport has another dimension, a grip on our hearts and minds that few businesses come anywhere near. He has already made quite a few noises about the responsibilities of those in the England set-up, which is encouraging. But one of his responsibilities is to see cricket as it really is.

Businessmen turned administrators like to think sport is like business, because they want to feel that their skills are going to be some use. Clarke's predecessor's predecessor was Lord MacLaurin, the then boss of Britain's dominant supermarket, Tesco. If Atherton, the then England captain, had received a pound for every time MacLaurin said "If one of my store managers said that", he wouldn't have needed one of the central contracts that MacLaurin eventually succeeded in introducing.

In business, money doesn't talk, it shouts. In business, bosses are answerable to shareholders (at least in theory) and they may take little notice of the interests of the wider public. In business, the bosses are centre-stage. In business, television and radio play little part, and the newspapers are mostly biddable. Sport is different - or it should be.

Clarke brings many things to the job, and the most important of them may not be his experience running Majestic Wine, his years building up Pet City, his time as Somerset chairman, or his role in the great British self-storage explosion of the past few years. It's just as relevant, if not more so, that he speaks some Hindi and Urdu, and that he sits on the Learning and Skills Council and the Adult Learning Committee.


Clarke's stint as chairman will be interesting to watch. The meetings he is going to chair are going to be so lively, he should think about selling the TV rights to them

Atherton paints a convincing picture of a character who is determined, dynamic and impatient for change. That could be just what the ECB needs, though how far it will allow the new broom to sweep remains to be seen. The worry is that Clarke has already shown a tendency to see what he wants to see. In cricket he is best known as the man who took Test matches off terrestrial television by selling all the British rights to Sky. When Atherton tackled him about this, he said: "Young sports fans in this day and age have access to Sky TV - that's a fact." Well, actually five out of eight homes in Britain don't have Sky. That's about 15 million households. Is Clarke seriously arguing that they don't contain any young sports fans? And then calling it "a fact"?

Another thing about businessmen is that they are not very used to having anyone argue back at them. The Sky decision provoked widespread dismay, with many fans taking the view that the extra money would not be worth the loss of two-thirds of the audience and the risk that cricket might end up in a middle-class ghetto. "I was portrayed," Clarke says, "as a combination of Hitler and Attila the Hun for taking cricket off terrestrial television, but it was the right thing to do." Hang on. Somebody accused him of resembling a genocidal dictator? I don't think so. Rule one of civilised discourse: don't bring Hitler into it. It's telling that Clarke can't refute the argument without misrepresenting it.

If business isn't an adequate parallel for sport, what is? The field sport most resembles is national heritage, especially the great museums. They, too, are owned by the nation, enjoyed by both adults and children, admired by visitors, and tied up with our sense of who we are. There's a reason why sport is lumped, in the world of British government departments, with culture and the media. And like cricket the big museums are a lot less stuffy and more engaging than they used to be, while still retaining their historic resonance.

As Atherton says, Clarke's stint as chairman will be interesting to watch. The meetings he is going to chair are going to be so lively, he should think about selling the TV rights to them.

Tim de Lisle is the author of Young Wisden: A New Fan's Guide to Cricket, reviewed here. His website is www.timdelisle.com

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