The summer game v the beautiful game
As Australia's cricketers re-engage in this summer's Ashes hostilities, the Australian game finds itself in an equally fierce off-field battle, with a challenge to the sport's traditional summer stronghold coming from soccer.
A recent study by sports research group Gemba points to significantly increased soccer participation figures, with 960,000 Australians involved in formal competitions under the control of the Football Federation of Australia. A further million Australians are involved in some form of unorganised soccer. In the meantime Cricket Australia has released its annual census figures, also pointing to increased participation: 952,000. For the sake of this reporting, CA defines a participant as anyone participating in club cricket, school cricket or any of their official entry-level programmes for a period in excess of four weeks in the reporting year.
These recent results continue in line with what the board says is a trend of 5% year-on-year growth over the last decade. The numbers look impressive on the surface but the spike has also been driven by the decision three years ago to include figures for the 177,000 indoor-cricket participants across the country. The figures are bolstered further by recent efforts to increase the reach of children's participation programmes in primary schools and cricket clubs.
The healthy numbers are what Roy Morgan Market Research expert George Pesutto likens to "growth by acquisition" rather than an actual surge in the popularity of the game. He doesn't believe that the doubling of CA's participation rates in the past decade reflects the actual growth of cricket in Australia. Pesutto agrees that CA has had success with its youth participation programmes and claims that it is the combination of those, a successful Ashes summer, and the move of Big Bash League T20 cricket to free-to-air TV that will underpin healthy short-term growth for the sport in Australia.
Cricket Australia's executive general manager of game and market development, Andrew Ingleton, believes that cricket and its sporting competitors can happily co-exist, and that, for now, soccer doesn't pose a threat to cricket participation rates. "In one sense I'm delighted to see any sport growing, because generally the kids who play soccer and play footy also play cricket. I don't see that as a threat at all in terms of stealing kids away from cricket."
Ingelton says that a key plank of CA's strategy to win over a younger generation of cricket fans is to get them playing the game at a young age. CA is now strategically focused in turning youth participants into fans of the game and Ingleton has been tasked with making that happen.
"There is a really clear relationship. A participant in the game, whether they are a player or club volunteer or a coach or an umpire, is far more likely to be a fan and consumer of the game," he says, while also pointing to the Gemba report findings that a participant is four to five times more likely to be a consumer of the game. He says that CA has "spent a lot more money marketing participation this year", and sees it as a way to capture lifelong fans at a young age. This summer CA's advertising that focuses on promoting participation has multiplied by a factor of five and been integrated into the strategy for promoting the game in general.
Ingleton sees T20 cricket as a fundamental element of the strategy to woo children to become players and supporters. "One of the key objectives of the Big Bash competition is to generate new fans, and clearly if some of those new fans are young kids, we can also be potentially finding new players."
In addition to CA's "Milo in2CRICKET" programme aimed at five-to-eight-year-olds and delivered on a national scale through primary schools and cricket clubs, rapid uptake of the new "T20 Blast" programme has helped drive participation numbers in the 12 months since its inception. The eight-week programme is CA's attempt to build a bridge between junior participation programmes and local cricket clubs throughout the country.
But soccer is on the march, with the A League now occupying the same summer real estate that cricket had long called its own. Upon release of the Gemba figures on soccer's growth, FFA chief executive David Gallop claimed, "We are now an authentic Australian sport with a broad, diverse following and a national spread that no other sport can match." Cricket Australia is equally keen to be all things to all people, and Ingleton often repeats his boss James Sutherland's mantra that "cricket is a game for all Australians and for everybody".
As part of that organisational push to appeal to the broadest cross-section of Australian society, CA has handed marketing contracts to Pakistani-born legspinner Fawad Ahmed and young New South Wales paceman Gurinder Sandhu. Ingleton believes that the publicity surrounding both them and Usman Khawaja could be vital in promoting the diversity and openness of a game whose Australian roots are so mono-cultural. Ingelton says, "We know we'll have been successful when every club reflects the community in which it's based and you can see yourself in the club. Players like Gurinder and Fawad and Usman provide us with an opportunity to present some heroes to kids from their communities. Just like any kid, if you get to meet a Test player or a state player and you can hear their journey, it demystifies things."
In addition to the rapid growth in entry-level participation programmes, CA has been pleased by significant growth in female participation over the last two summers. Its latest census data points to 18% growth in female participation over the last 12 months to go with an equal number the following year. This equates to close to 180,000 female participants in outdoor cricket.
Ingleton sees the surge in female participation as a virtue of not only the success of Australia's national team over that period but the uptake of entry-level programmes in primary schools nationwide. In addition, CA has fully integrated its "Play Cricket" website with the pre-existing MyCricket portal, meaning it is far easier for parents of interested children to find a place to play through the club-finder facility. "A mother whose daughter comes home and says, 'Hey, I really enjoyed a T20 Blast School Cup today and I want to play cricket', can go online and work out where she can play, where the nearest club is, learn about the club," says Ingleton.
Getting kids playing is only half the battle, and in a fragmented and competitive media landscape, cricket can no longer afford to rest on its laurels. Sports television viewership research, compiled by Roy Morgan over the past decade, indicates that a clear gulf still exists between the number of Australians who regularly catch cricket on TV and those who watch soccer. In the period between October 2012 and September 2013, it says that 39% of Australians regularly watched some form of cricket, while 21% tuned in to watch soccer. Only 8% of Australians regularly watched A League Soccer broadcasts in that competition's first year and that number has not dramatically moved since. In the same period cricket saw a gradual decrease from 45% to the current number of 39%.
Game attendance, stadium capacities and the fact that cricket now boasts three formats indicate that double the number of Australians attended some form of cricket match than soccer was able to draw over the past 12 months. Though Pesutto grants that Roy Morgan uses different metrics than CA, its research backs up the FFA's claim that soccer now boasts the higher participation rate.
One person well qualified to point out soccer's rise within the Australian sporting landscape is the head of the A League, Damien De Bohun, who previously held Ingleton's position as CA's manager of game and market development. He recently said that the sport is well on track to be the most dominant in the land. "It may take ten years, it may take 20, but we are absolutely convinced it will happen… There is no question interest in football is increasing at speed."
For all the bluff and bluster of the various codes and the claims and counter-claims on participation rates and growth, Cricket Australia is aware that progress needs to be sustainable in the long term. Following the negotiation of the latest lucrative media rights projections, its AGM was used as a platform to spruik a revenue growth of 63% over the last four-year cycle, a great deal of which will be reinvested in grassroots programmes through a strategic investment fund presented as a A$70 million war chest. Investments so far include the establishment of a national community cricket facilities fund, which Ingleton says will contribute $5-10 million in funding to help the game grow at grassroots level and encourage a new generation to take it up.
CA has also seen its heavy financial and philosophical investment in the Big Bash pay off, with domestic rights now accounting for a projected 65% of the broadcast revenue in the four-year cycle that ends in 2015-16, making it less reliant on revenue from the subcontinent. While the board says that 13% of attendees for last year's Big Bash had never been to a cricket match, it is also aware of the need to keep them coming back. Channel Ten's Big Bash broadcast will help, and Pesutto says: "Growing the fan base is a natural symptom of putting it on free-to-air and making it more accessible to people."
To some extent these can be seen as controllable elements, unlike the national team's performance, upon which so much of the sport's appeal eventually hinges. Everyone loves a winner but it's not just the Ashes that Australian cricket is fighting for this summer.
Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here