County cricket April 29, 2013

Championship prices ignore economic reality

No one disputes that counties have bills to pay, but pricing policies for Championship cricket too often put off all but the most hardened fans

On a gloomy April day with an unrelenting wind, Lancashire began Division Two life against Worcestershire. The price, even for those arriving at 3pm after half a day at work? That'll be £17 for adults please.

Lancashire might be extreme offenders, with a pricing strategy for adults both oblivious to today's economic realities and their own position in Division Two, but they aren't the only ones.

Hampshire, who charge adults £20 on the day - plus a cool £8 for parking - also seem rather oblivious to their Division Two status; and the combined price for an adult and junior at Essex, £26, is double that of Surrey.

Perhaps Warwickshire, as the champion county, have a little more excuse for charging adults £20, a £5 increase from 2012. They point to the advance price - but this is still £15, and involves fans both having to gamble on the English weather and grasp with the vagaries of online booking. Oh, and pay the £1 booking fee.

No one disputes that counties have bills to pay, but pricing policies too often put off casual fans. And there are a lot of these to be won, in an age when over five million people are un or underemployed while the population ages. It is almost as if counties have lost so much faith in Championship cricket that they would sooner attempt to squeeze more money out of existing devotees than win new ones.

It's hardly difficult to say what a sensible ticketing policy for County Championship cricket would look like. Charge no more than £12 for a full day's play for adults, and only a couple of quid for juniors, with a sizeable discount at lunch and free entry after tea.

Some counties already display such common sense. Northants charge only £10 for a full day, falling to £7 after lunch. Chief executive David Smith said that the shortfall in ticketing revenue was largely made up for by spectators spending more: unsurprisingly, when fans don't feel they have been ripped off, they are more inclined to buy food and drink. And they are also rather more likely to come in the first place: someone I spoke to at Old Trafford said that, after paying £17 for half a day's cricket, he was changing his plan to come the following day too.

Most counties do at least appear to recognise the need to engage children in an age when they can't stumble across Test cricket on TV - Glamorgan offer completely free entry. But five counties still charge £8 or more with Yorkshire demanding £10 for a one-off visit from their young fans.

Lancashire are at least a good deal more enlightened when it comes to juniors. For £15 they can get into all Championship and YB40 matches. It is just the parent who accompanies them who needs deep pockets.

A growing number of counties seem to recognise the benefits of offering people free admission after tea. But, too often, this remains a well-kept secret: Surrey and Warwickshire both offer it without appearing to mention it on their websites. It's a wasted opportunity: with a little more imaginative marketing, people might be tempted to have their post-work drinks at the cricket.

In January there was uproar, and a partial boycott, by Manchester City fans over the price of their fixture at Arsenal, for which no away tickets were available for under £62. County cricket might understandably feel that, in comparison, it represents excellent value. But too many counties display a depressing combination of short-termism and inflexibility in their ticketing policies.

By producing cricket as compelling as Warwickshire's draw at Taunton, the players are certainly doing their bit to engage new fans. Sadly, too few county administrators can honestly say the same.

Good Week

A seven-wicket win at Bristol means that Northants have already won two games - and it would have been three out of three without rain at Cardiff in the opening round. They are a squad of unobtrusive players - although David Willey is a strong England Lions contender - with their qualities exemplified by Steven Crook. Buccaneering with the bat and deceptively quick with the ball, Crook has claimed 18 wickets at 13 so far this season to go with 149 runs, including two half-centuries, for twice out. Glamorous he is not - but signing of the season, he just might be.

England players:
When England players return to county cricket they are meant to perform like international players. And, this week they certainly did: James Anderson bowled with typical skill for Lancashire; Stuart Broad rediscovered his penchant for destruction with 4-6 in 17 balls in Nottinghamshire's win; Nick Compton scored a fifty and century for Somerset; and Matt Prior enlivened a turgid Oval draw with a typically peppy 62.

Then there was Joe Root: England's No 6, returning to opening the batting for Yorkshire, hit a magnificent 182 as they chased down a record target of 336 at Chester-le-Street. There was further cheer from players on the periphery - players who England will need over ten Ashes Tests. Tim Bresnan took a wicket with his first ball and looked to have become reacquainted with that elusive nip. Chris Tremlett even avoided injury on his Surrey return.

Bad Week

Something seems amiss at Worcestershire, who have suffered consecutive heavy defeats against Glamorgan and Hampshire, where they lost by an innings. They are over-reliant on a few players - Daryl Mitchell, Moeen Ali and Thilan Samaraweera with the bat; Alan Richardson and, well, Alan Richardson with the ball. In mitigation their first three games have been away from home but, as skipper Mitchell admitted after the Hampshire game, things need to change. And fast. No one could blame Moeen, whose contract expires after this season, for considering his career options.

Dig-In of the Week

Rikki Clarke and Oliver Hannon-Dolby:
For their match-saving 127-ball partnership against Somerset, Rikki Clarke and Oliver Hannon-Dolby deserve to share the Dig-In award. Clarke, who batted almost three hours, shows he is a far more adaptable batsman than the cavalier he is sometimes made out as.

Fixture of the Week

Glamorgan v Lancashire, County Championship, Division Two, Colwyn Bay, Wednesday

County cricket at its best - Jimmy Anderson and Glen Chapple bowling by the North Wales sea in the season's first outground fixture. And the game should have spice, too - after two Old Trafford draws, Lancashire need a win to establish their promotion credentials. Glamorgan are also better than widely assumed - going back to last season, they have won four of their last nine Championship fixtures.