Get a move on
When the 20-over baton passes from the Indian Premier League on Sunday to county cricket's Twenty20 Cup on Monday, there is a risk the mood will change in an instant. If, as Lalit Modi, the IPL's chairman and commissioner, likes to point out with characteristic bombast, his creation is "recession-proof", then the humble, homegrown Twenty20 Cup is in danger of feeling the economic pinch.
As a rule, cricket's youngest format does not do introspection, but then why would you when you've spent the last few years being told you're nothing less than the future itself? The indications this week, though, are that the Twenty20 Cup, now in its seventh year, has so far struggled to capture the public imagination. As one county chief executive complained: "People just don't seem to have switched on to the fact that there's a Twenty20 tournament starting here on Monday."
Everywhere you look, ticket sales compare unfavourably with 2008. At Worcestershire sales are down 40% on the same stage last year. A Surrey spokesperson reports that tickets for their May fixtures (for the first time this year the tournament is split in two to accommodate the World Twenty20) "haven't gone as well as we'd hoped". Durham confirm that sales "aren't as robust as last year", while Leicestershire say they'd be "lying" if they claimed figures hadn't fallen away. Northamptonshire admit with grimly chuckling understatement that sales are "more than slightly down". In fact, among the counties contacted by Cricinfo, only Kent, who begin with a home game against local rivals Essex, do not radiate despondency.
But before we jump to conclusions about Twenty20's position in cricket's increasingly bloated market, consider this. The football season is not yet over and the weather still iffy. The Friends Provident Trophy has only just ticked off the last of its group matches. The Ashes and the World Twenty20 may have greater allure. The recession that apparently bypassed the IPL has persuaded county fans to keep their hands in their pockets for longer, and almost every chief executive we spoke to is crossing fingers for a compensatory walk-up audience on the day. And ticket sales for Twenty20 Cup matches towards the end of June, when the tournament is normally in full swing, are said to be healthier.
No amount of rationalising, however, can get away from a home truth: Twenty20 cricket in England, where it has been providing one long pat on the back for marketing executives, cannot afford to rest on any laurels. County chiefs say they regard the IPL as something to aspire to rather than fear, but there is an awareness that work needs to be done to keep the Twenty20 Cup in the sporting public's collective consciousness.
"The IPL shows what Twenty20 is capable of," says David Harker, the Durham chief executive. "I think we've missed a trick in England. It was invented to attract people into the grounds, but we seem to have spent the last few years apologising because it's not 'proper cricket'. It is a sporting entertainment package in its own right. You just have to differentiate that from the longer form of the game."
David Smith, the chief executive of Leicestershire, is also conscious of the need to keep promoting the tournament, especially in an age of financial hardship. "As the product matures, maybe the novelty factor wears off a bit and people will begin to choose games that suit them and their pocket," he says.
Not that the England and Wales Cricket Board is unaware of the rumbles. "Yes, it's of concern," says its head of marketing, Will Collinson. "We all want to be playing in front of full houses. But we're confident that once the tournament starts, the number of people who watch the cricket over the course of the year will increase significantly."
This year the ECB has spent over £300,000 advertising cut-price Twenty20 tickets (£9.50 for an adult and a child) in the Sun in an attempt to broaden the tournament's reach. A PR agency, Threepipe, has been hired to provide a marketing template for the counties, especially the smaller ones, to adapt to their own towns and cities. And, because of the uniquely protracted nature of this year's tournament, the advertising campaign is being deliberately spread across the six weeks that span its beginning and end. The hope is that the sandwich-filler of the World Twenty20 will keep appetites whetted.
And yet the message is only getting across slowly. In some ways the tale of pre-sales for the tournament's first 10 days (the World Twenty20 kicks in on June 5) is a reflection of our times. But looming on the horizon is the P20, the two-divisional Twenty20 league scheduled to start next year in place of the Pro40 (popular, it seems, only with county chief executives and the all-powerful members). That will mean two Twenty20 tournaments in quick succession, and as yet there is no clear marketing strategy to differentiate one from the other.
"I do have a concern about overkill," says Mark Newton, the Worcestershire chief executive, who speaks for several of his colleagues. "I just don't know whether that concern is right or wrong. But if things don't work out, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves because we recommended the second competition."
For the time being, though, there are more pressing concerns. It's probably fairer to say that the slow ticket sales for the start of the tournament are a symptom of a perfect storm of unfavourable circumstances rather than the beginning of some kind of public disillusionment with Twenty20 cricket. But with the IPL seemingly going from strength to strength and the counties well aware the P20 will invite accusations of geese and golden eggs, this may not be the time to take any chances.
Lawrence Booth is a cricket correspondent at the Guardian. He writes the acclaimed weekly cricket email The Spin for guardian.co.uk