December 9, 2013

Warks test rebrand loyalty

The news that Warwickshire will be known as Birmingham Bears in next season's T20 is another example of the muddled thinking that surrounds the format in England

Counties have tried a lot of things over the years to try and get more support. None have been quite as desperate as Warwickshire's latest attempt: airbrush out the county name completely. In 2014, Warwickshire's Twenty20 side won't be known as Warwickshire. Instead, they will be the Birmingham Bears.

The idea was suggested by Birmingham council, who helped Warwickshire's development of Edgbaston with a £20m loan. Chief executive, Colin Povey, stressed that the club don't want to "walk away from our heritage and history" and said they hoped it would engage new fans. The existing ones will need placating first, however.

"The main response from fellow members was that they were being alienated by the club. Their feeling was that it's a county club and should still have the name of the county that we fondly support. I agree, and I'm dead against the decision to change the name." So says lifelong Warwickshire fan Adam Veysey. Outraged, he created a Facebook group protesting against the decision. It has already got almost 1500 members - proof that the social media generation isn't immune to county cricket's charms.

To his credit, Povey has since met with the disgruntled fan. Veysey says: "The one thing I wanted to come out of the meeting was that I didn't want the whole club to be rebranded. He couldn't definitely guarantee this but he did go as far as saying that in the future he could not see this happening. Colin and I will have to agree to disagree."

County cricket has problems getting media coverage at the best of times; in winter, it can be easy to forget it exists at all. At least this is a novel way of attracting some attention: the Birmingham Mail reported outrage for several days, with its cricket correspondent Brian Halford denouncing the name change as "naff and rather insecure attention-grabbing". The outcry has been such that the wheeze could be abandoned after a year.

Warwickshire do have the ECB's consent, though. A name change requires board approval and in this case was "granted subject to no change in ownership or governance". Nicknames are a common feature in limited-overs cricket and the ECB has never turned down a request by a county to make a change - though this seems like a fundamentally different example.

The counties that get the best crowds in T20 are often the ones with the least time for stunts - Somerset and Surrey don't even bother with nicknames

It also appears to have been overlooked that the idea could undermine the integrity of the Natwest Blast, as county T20 will be called from 2014, creating incoherence and the sense of a competition not at ease with itself. The hugely successful IPL and BBL have a corporate consistency to their branding (even if new franchises do come and go in India).

"Warwickshire are keen to engage more closely with the vast ethnically diverse communities in the city itself - and they believe the name change will assist with this process," the ECB says. There is no denying that this is a real problem but it is not one that can be solved by such a cosmetic change.

Even T20 crowds want to feel like they are watching a game that has a history and rivalry. In London, where T20 fans supposedly wanted summer sun, free-flowing booze and little else, the sell-out games were Surrey against Middlesex. Even for very casual followers of the game, this fixture resonates in a way that 'North London' v 'South London' never could. Warwickshire v Worcestershire is a game with history and local resonance. Birmingham v Worcestershire - a city incongruously against a county - is not.

Warwickshire's plan is seen as being, whatever its faults, impressively ambitious. Actually, the opposite is true. It seems to concede that the public are put off by the name Warwickshire and marks out the T20 side as completely separate from the county in the other formats. It's a short-sighted and rather defeatist approach: with the 50-over competition played in mid-summer next year, T20 could serve as a gateway drug to the longer formats of cricket. Instead, those following the 'Birmingham Bears' might not realise other competitions exist.

Despite the backlash, Warwickshire may not be the last county to try such a rebranding. It is a seductive - and cheap - option for chairmen frustrated at not getting more supporters into their grounds.

With county finances struggling, you can hardly them for trying to boost attendances. It could look like franchising by the back door - just last week, Keith Bradshaw tried to reopen that particular debate - but it's hard to envisage counties voting themselves out of existence in the one format that they don't depend on ECB handouts for. But some chairmen will envisage following Warwickshire's lead in playing as cities in T20. It remains to be seen how many such requests the ECB would grant.

Many will see it for what it is: a gimmick. There is nothing clever about counties alienating their members and ridiculous nicknames (Yorkshire Vikings, anyone?) put off as many as they excite.

The counties that get the best crowds in T20 are often the ones with the least time for stunts - Somerset and Surrey don't even bother with nicknames. Hampshire, champions in 2010 and 2012, have just dropped their Royals suffix, while Glamorgan recently reverted from calling themselves the Welsh Dragons.

County cricket is at its best when it believes in itself. When T20 was first introduced, the idea was to provide enough alternative entertainment - from Jacuzzis to bouncy castles - to almost make people forget that they were watching the cricket. Three years ago, former Yorkshire cricket executive Stewart Regan gushed about the "fashion shows, after-match parties and entertainment" at the IPL. But "cricketainment" wasn't necessary in England. All county T20 needed was good weather and a decent schedule.

The county game has strengths the envy of every other domestic competition in the world: loyal memberships, authentic histories, and rivalries that are real, not manufactured. Last summer - when 50,000 attended Lord's and The Oval over two heady nights in London - proved that county cricket can make a success of T20; with two-thirds of games on Friday evenings, 2014 could be even better. "Reinventing" counties with nicknames more often the preserve of American sports is a pointless, perhaps counter-productive, distraction. The Bears should beware.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Pierre on December 14, 2013, 13:33 GMT

    So who do I support living near Oxford? I've never heard anyone writing articles complaining about the current county system alienating people not living in a major county, in other words those living in over half the English counties. That's surely more relevant than a silly name change between Warwickshire and Birmingham. I personally identify equally with Oxford and Oxfordshire, although I admit that someone living a bit further from Oxford, say in Banbury, might disagree.

  • Rue on December 12, 2013, 5:10 GMT

    Are the people of Birmingham really unaware of the large International cricket stadium located a mile from the city centre? Have they not noticed the street signs pointing to Edgbaston?Do Warwickshire CC really think that the locals are stupid? If you have any interest in cricket you will know about Warwickshire Cricket Club, you will know it is located in Birmingham, you will know it is a county ground. Im pretty sure people wont be picking up the paper and reading about Warwickshire and not realise its in their home city. I cant see Birmingham Bears having an amazing pull factor, it just smacks of a lazy marketing manager desperate to justify his job.

  • Stephen on December 11, 2013, 9:41 GMT

    Well Villa are obviously planning on changing their name to Birmingham United or some such due to the number of fans leaving them to support Birmingham City due to it being named after the city.

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2013, 20:49 GMT

    @ py0alb. Aston Villa anyone? Never heard of a place called Aston Villa, will never have any allegiance t them as I can't buy a house in the city of Aston Villa. That's okay though, as they are a little football team who no one supports... o, actually yes, that is right they are a huge premier league side who have thrived despite not being named after a city... kinda blows your theory out of the water doesn't it.

  • Stephen on December 10, 2013, 18:33 GMT

    @py0alb Virtually every cricket fan I know who live's within Birmingham (a lot) follow Warwickshire because they feel allegiance to their local team which they know as 'Warwickshire'. All I've spoken to (which is not that many only 10 or so) say they are massively disappointed. About half of them say they aren't planning on going to any T20 games this year (including one who made it to every match last year). The ENTIRE fanbase that exists at the moment knows them as Warwickshire and virtually every one of them is against the name change due to the history of the club. This is only targeted at the small number of people who: 1.Live in Birmingham, 2.Don't currently watch cricket, 3.Would find T20 cricket entertaining & 4.Have no idea where Warwickshire is. Think you'll find the number of people who meet ALL four of those criteria is actually quite small, especially when you compare it to the fanbase disenchanted by this move.

  • Simon on December 10, 2013, 14:57 GMT

    They tried this with rebranding Glamorgan the Welsh Dragons for limited over matches a couple of years ago. Complete failure it was so they reverted back to Glamorgan. Can see the same thing happening here.

  • Adam on December 10, 2013, 14:22 GMT

    But the point is, why would someone from Birmingham feel any allegiance to a team called "warwickshire"? They don't live in warwick, they live in Birmingham, if they're going to support anyone, its going to be a team called "Birmingham".

  • Paulo on December 10, 2013, 13:38 GMT

    @Stevros3 don't forget Lancashire becoming "Greater Manchester" or something.

    Surely Warwackshire to Birmingham alienates Coventry (Ian Bell's area) etc, like renaming Durham would as @northumbriannomad mentions. Also could include renaming Yorkshire to "Leeds" alientating both Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow's home towns, Hampshire to "Southampton sharks" alienating Portsmouth, or Glamorgan becoming "Cardiff" alienating Swansea etc.

  • Stephen on December 10, 2013, 13:10 GMT

    @py0alb "Surely all the current warwickshire fans support warwickshire, because that's what the word "fan" means" As a Warwickshire fan myself and giving my hard earned money to the club I feel I have a right to express my opinion, not just accept anything and everything the club throws out. And that opinion is that this move is turning it's back on the history of the club for a marketing campain. I question how many people who are likely to go to the cricket don't know who the local team are when they are called Warwickshire. Are you actually saying that people who go and watch Everton may not know who is the local team to support because the word Liverpool isn't in the name. Or that a person watching Saracens play rugby don't know that they are a local team in London. Virtually everybody liable to go to a local cricket game knows that Warwickshire is the local team. And if they don't the big signs about the area show them.

  • D on December 10, 2013, 13:01 GMT

    @Michael Jones - Also, Bulls sounds a bit more optimistic than Bears, if cricket is all about the marketplace.

    Speaking as a Durham fan, I hope the city names thing doesn't take off. Durham would either have to be Chester-le-Street Charioteers, or choose between alienating half the team by being Sunderland, or alienating the other half by being Newcastle (which has never been in County Durham anyway). Or I suppose they could just call themselves Durham (City Of) (And Neighbouring Communities In Uneasy Alliance And In No Particular Order).

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