Online coverage lifts county game
A few days ago, the Times decided to cut back its coverage of county cricket. The usual blandishments were offered to those most affected: it was all highly regrettable, a decision made for reasons of space not because of declining interest, and one which might only be temporary. But for a county game which is struggling to gain attention, to begin to doubt the affections of the broadsheet newspaper that in recent years has provided the most committed coverage of all was another disturbing development in an unsympathetic world.
For the county cricket writers trying to scrape an increasingly parlous living, and now reassessing their likely income with only a few weeks to go before the season, it also brought a deepening pessimism about the future.
Regional papers have slashed county cricket coverage as circulations have fallen and employees have been laid off. The last person to remember meaningful county coverage in a tabloid is now middle-aged and even a publication as traditional and upstanding as The Cricketer magazine has gone cold on a professional county circuit that is the lifeblood of the England side, a financial miracle that for half a century has defied the voices of doom.
For a website like ESPNcricinfo, which remains committed this summer to another expansion of our county coverage, a lack of serious competitors in this field would be nothing to get excited about. To become stronger in a declining part of the market would be to decline all the same. A vibrant county circuit, recognised as newsworthy, is vital. And that is why, above all, we are celebrating the official announcement of a new broadcast partnership for county cricket between the ECB and the BBC. We are happy to say, along with David Collier, the ECB's chief executive, that it is a "fantastic boost" for county cricket. Together, we are stronger.
Live ball-by-ball commentary of every match in the LV= County Championship, Yorkshire Bank 40 and Friends Life t20 matches via BBC online streams is quite a deal for a county game which struggles to make itself heard.
At ESPNcricinfo, we cover the county game somewhat differently from the way proposed in the new BBC/ECB tie-up: by assembling the finest county cricket writers in the country to complement our much-heralded live scorecard service, and by enhancing that with improved live blogs, exclusive news stories, strong opinions and (when we get the hang of it) Google hangouts.
This season we will also be introducing the first Supporters' Network, with a fan providing a passionate take on each of the 18 first-class counties. While the BBC is now the establishment option, with its coverage promoted on all county websites and the ECB website, we will be offering our own independent take - qualities recognised by the ECB's 2012 award for online coverage of county cricket. We can't wait for the season to start.
Even though the BBC deal might sound too cosy for some tastes, it is offering a vital public service, a shot in the arm for a county game struggling for attention. At ESPNcricinfo we have all loved county cricket since we first swung a bat and are convinced that even in the supposed soundbite-afflicted generation, the interest is out there. That interest is increasingly served on the internet.
All it needs is for the media to pay the county game the attention it deserves and the ECB to devise a first-class programme that connects with the public and recognises that by swamping county cricket with a non-stop England programme to maximise revenue - and so help keep the county game alive - it may also be killing it with kindness.
It is not often that ESPNcricinfo quotes the BBC Head of Radio Sport and Sports News. But we will quote Richard Burgess when he says: "There is a big appetite for county cricket coverage." The appreciation of our expanded county coverage last season suggests as much as does a welter of small, independent websites, bloggers and tweeters, some more reliable and worthwhile than others, but all of them trying to communicate in their own way a belief that the county game has a role in the great scheme of things.
In county cricket, you can be the first to spot an emerging talent, or to revel in the game through the highs and lows of more than just the same 20-or-so players who represent England, and to join a cricket community which, no matter how much it may be overlooked, values the pleasures it finds on a daily basis.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo