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Ashes or not, Twenty20 in England has slipped off the radar and has a way to go to catch up in the public consciousness

Lawrence Booth

May 22, 2009

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Middlesex celebrate as Justin Kemp is run out off the last ball, Kent v Middlesex, Twenty20 Cup final, The Rose Bowl, July 26, 2008
Not quite in the pink: the recession has not helped ticket sales for the Twenty20 Cup this year © Getty Images
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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.

 
 
"It [Twenty20] 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" David Harker, Durham chief executive
 

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

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Posted by tbc1 on (May 24, 2009, 22:02 GMT)

The problem is both temporary and permanent. The T20 tournament this year is unlikely to attract as one it did simply due to the plethora of more "significant" cricket this summer; world cup T20, and, crucially, the Ashes. I suspect the increasing infiltration of the IPL into the collective English consciousness hasn't helped the domestic competition either.

I do also think that, allied to a wider excess of cricket, there simply is, and has been, too much T20 played in England. In light of the fact that it is the choice of the unsophisticated and those who seek more atavistic, instant gratification, it has lost the appeal that once it had as the "new" form of cricket; that iconoclastic mantle has now been conferred on the IPL.

Posted by L1P1H1 on (May 23, 2009, 11:42 GMT)

Twenty20 used to be £10 per ticket and you could take 4 cans of beer or a bottle of wine with you. Great after work cheap night out. Now tickets cost £20+ per match and you can't take in any alcohol so you have to pay a premium price for whatever horrible beer/cheap wine the ground sells, and spend all night in a queue for it out of view of the cricket.

I know it is a family event but half a bottle of your own wine with your mate isn't going to turn you into a binge drinking yob.

If you go for hospitality you either miss the match having lunch or dinner, or the counties have to put on fast food style buffets which doesn't have a good profit margin for them.

If a match starts at 5.30 you aren't going to buy a ticket in advance in case you get slightly delayed at work, a 30 minute hold up at the office and you may as well not bother going to the game.

The lazy Sunday afternoons of Pro40, arriving some time after lunch if you can't make it for the start will soon be lost sadly.

Posted by 2.14istherunrate on (May 22, 2009, 23:41 GMT)

Reading this fills me with a little bit of hope though I recognise the fact that a World 20/20 cup rather dowses it. Like Harvey I am a real cricket lover and all that brings. Though a bit of mickey mouse slog around helps distance hitting and fielding(along with making bowlers prime candidates for Amnesty International concern) I think that if every ball is hit fot 6 it is as dull as watching a diet of forward defensives on a pudding wicket. Also 20/20 seems to be a game without a real plot-wham bang thank you ma'm. Furthermore it makes hyped up idiots out of the poor commentators. And when one reads in newspapers of Test cricket's fight for survival(surely just a misjudged conspiracy) it makes one blanche considerably. I pray that the ECB ditch this dreaded spectre on the horizon of two meaningless competitions to reduce the season to drivel.Is it not bad enough to hijack June with one? By contrast Pro 40 is a great little competition. After all money is not everything.

Posted by TwitterJitter on (May 22, 2009, 21:20 GMT)

David Harker, the Durham chief executive has got it exactly right. Twenty20 is something that is going to help the respective boards expand the market size if you will of cricket in general. Like it or not test cricket at the moment is catering to a niche audience while T20 can only help expand that market so that more people are aware of how cricket is played in general. Instead as David Harker pointed out the media in UK has been bashing it ever since and forcing the counties to constantly apologize for it. The English media in this respect is not helping anyone most of all ECB and English counties. Embrace change. T20 will only be played for a few weeks in a year. You have the rest of the year for tests. By bashing and putting it down the media is not helping anyone. Contrast that with Indian media and BCCI who seems to have embraced T20 and it can only help to grow the market in India.

Posted by Harvey on (May 22, 2009, 19:23 GMT)

The truth of the matter is that the novelty of Twenty20 has worn off in this country, just as predicted, and people are bored with it. For every non-cricket fan who likes it there is a growing number of cricket fans who actively dislike it, and are alarmed at how other formats are being marginalised. Isn't it about time the ECB started running cricket for the benefit of CRICKET fans and listening to what CRICKET fans want? The planned P20 next year is not as a result of genuine public demand for more Twenty20, but as a result of the kind of short-termist greed that we've seen in abundance from the current ECB administration. They think Twenty20 can tap into a vast new audience, ignoring the fact that Twenty20 has been around plenty long enough to attract that audience if it really exists, and they haven't exactly been keeping Twenty20 a secret! Saturation point has already been reached and exceeded. The sooner the ECB realises this and drops the planned P20 competition the better.

Posted by Choppered on (May 22, 2009, 15:49 GMT)

I support Somerset. I would have gone to watch them play at Cardiff this Monday but someone has decided to put a Bank Holiday game on as a day/night match. Who exactly does this benefit? With a 2.5 hour drive home afterwards, it counts out me & 3 friends from going. On the bright side, at least I'm now not giving any money to the Welsh. :-)

Posted by JackHobbes on (May 22, 2009, 11:42 GMT)

Point taken about ticket prices, but for those of us that follow it from afar, that's not an issue.

The real question, to my mind, is about the upcoming England-hosted World T20. By then, plenty of folks will have gotten into the habit of tuning out and ICC sponsored event, many for the first time ever. That new habit will easily be applied to the world T20, given that real cricket, i.e. Test cricket, will be going on simultaneously with the English county championship.

The IPL has given people an opportunity to ignore the ICC, and the ICC's "simply not cricket" bullying of the ICL have given them a reason to do so.

"Twenty 20 ain't really cricket, No cherry no white, only a wicket.

One side bats, the other side bowls, Pints are consumed, then they change roles.

It's baseball in pads, played in the round, With Scooby and Elvis signalling fours on the ground.

Twenty 20's a googly; 450? Can't declare it! Unplayable, a jaffer, but just who will pick it?"

Posted by NumberXI on (May 22, 2009, 11:32 GMT)

The problem for the ECB and the counties is not that Twenty20 has lost its allure as a sport or a form of cricket, or that the approach has been "apologetic". The real problem is that as English cricket as a whole begins to adopt a more xenophobic attitude - sample the rumblings over Hughes and Clark playing in county cricket - the best cricketers from the world will not find it a very attractive proposition. And when they have the option of playing at IPL which is competitive, the money is good (and Indian cricket's wannabe talents benefit from playing alongside the best cricketers in the world), why would they look forward to the inevitable self-centered tantrums that will accompany their presence in English county cricket? Sure the IPL has packaged Twenty20 well - but the real problem is the inward looking and self-centered attitude of English cricket.

Posted by robheinen on (May 22, 2009, 9:52 GMT)

Ticket prices are at a ridiculous level. Don't blame the buyers, blame the sellers. They fail to adjust to the market and not the other way around. It looks as if ticketsellers are blind. If you sell 10 tickets at £100 or 20000 tickets at £ 15 makes your revenue increase 300 fold. Added to this is the extra revenue from the bar. It's not rocket science what you should do when responsible for the financial side of running cricket.

Posted by JulesUK on (May 22, 2009, 8:25 GMT)

The counties won't be able to sell this season's Twenty20 as a massive event with high ticket prices - people can't afford it and anyone with money to spend on expensive tickets will be going to the Ashes.

They need to return to the original ethos i.e. family friendly lower priced events at smaller venues - focusing on fun first and money second. (A controversial idea I know!)

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Lawrence BoothClose
Lawrence Booth Lawrence Booth lives in London and writes on cricket for the Daily Mail. He spent seven years writing his weekly cricket email, The Spin, for the Guardian, and this summer will publish his fourth book, a collection of cricket quotations called What Are the Butchers For? He has grown used to holding out little hope for the England team and has never quite been able to shake off a fatal attraction to Northamptonshire.

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