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.

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