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How is five-day cricket so damn popular?

Has the least-marketed cricket format pulled off the sort of sales coup they haven't heard of at business school?

Alex Bowden

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The crowd gives Andrew Flintoff a rousing cheer as he walks out for his final Test innings, England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, 3rd day, August 22, 2009
No music, no cheerleaders, no fireworks - what the hell are all of them cheering for? © Getty Images

The faces surrounding the nameless man were either glum or tense. The older board members tended towards the former, accepting of what was happening and feeling there was nothing they could do. The others betrayed the tension and anxiety borne of trying and failing to have an impact. It was now unmistakeable. International cricket was in crisis.

The man in the ill-fitting suit chaired the meeting. "The projections are bleak, I'm afraid. At the current rate of decline, the popularity of our sport could actually fall below that of the World Test League within six years."

"How can that be?" asked the fat-necked man. "How is it that they're retaining their fan base while we're losing ours? That doesn't make any sense."

"Well, looking back over the figures, nothing seems to have changed really." The man in the ill-fitting suit looked down at a piece of paper and squeezed his temples with the thumb and forefinger of one hand, as if trying to wring an explanation out of his brain. "The popularity of the World Test League doesn't seem to rise or fall. Our popularity has huge peaks and troughs, but the general trend has always been downwards."

"Even in spite of all our optimisation?" asked Fat Neck incredulously.

"Yes," replied the man in the ill-fitting suit. "Most of our measures seemed to work for a bit, but then we suddenly lose fans in even greater numbers."

"It's almost like the effects wore off," said the nameless man.

The men stared at their graphs morosely. Someone sighed.

"So what are they doing then?" asked Fat Neck. "How is the World Test League retaining its market share?"

The man in the ill-fitting suit addressed the nameless man: "You've been studying their operation for the last few years. What do you make of it?"

"I guess it's a turnover thing," he replied. "They don't particularly attract new fans, but they don't seem to lose any either."

"Really?" said Fat Neck and there was much consternation from up and down the table. This was something of a foreign concept to the board members. "So they're somehow prolonging audience immersion?"

The nameless man was more at home in this environment after years as an administrator, but he still winced at that particular chunk of business speak. "I'm not quite sure how they're doing it," he said. "I'm not entirely sure whether they know how they're doing it either. They're certainly missing enough marketing tricks, so I'd be surprised if it was something they had consciously worked at."

"Is it the entertainment?" suggested Fat Neck.

"I don't think so," said the nameless man. "There isn't any really. No cheerleaders, no music, no nothing. The sport has to stand on its own."

"That seems risky," muttered the man in the ill-fitting suit with disdain. "Do they at least make some efforts to ensure the games deliver a high entertainment quotient?"

"They don't do a thing," said the nameless man.

No one spoke. This was beyond comprehension. The nameless man felt he needed to elaborate. "The matches just unfold naturally. Anything can happen. You simply never know when there might be a good passage of play. It's really unpredictable."

"You can't build a business like that," said the man in the ill-fitting suit.

"And they hardly ever play," added the nameless man. "There are gaps between matches, even within the same series."

"Don't people lose interest?" asked Fat Neck.

"In a long series, interest actually builds," answered the nameless man. "I honestly think they could have a fortnight between the penultimate match and the last one and people would still fill the time talking about what might happen."

A few of the other board members gave him a look that said he was going a bit too far with this line of thinking.

"None of this makes sense," said Fat Neck. "It's the least-optimised, least-marketed sport I've ever known. There's no way it can keep people's attention like this."

The nameless man riffled through his papers looking for a particular document. "I commissioned some research," he said. "And you're not going to believe this."

A breathless hush fell over the board room. These jaded old men were increasingly fascinated by the World Test League phenomenon.

The nameless man continued: "Over the course of their cricket-watching life, the average World Test League fan sees 200 times as many TV ads as the typical international cricket fan."

"That can't be right," said the man in the ill-fitting suit. A flat rejection of the information seemed the only appropriate response.

"Honestly, that's true," said the nameless man. "We never really noticed because they were such a small operation, but it's like we were saying earlier: they don't gain fans, but they don't lose any either."

The board room again fell silent as the men tried to absorb this revelation.

Abruptly, Fat Neck spoke: "My God. Imagine if they did attract new fans in large numbers."

"If I could get my hands on a sport that retained people's interest like that, it would be a licence to print money," said the man in the ill-fitting suit. "They're completely wasting a golden opportunity."

There were murmurs of agreement from around the table.

His imagination fired, the man in the ill-fitting suit started striding up and down the room, addressing everyone and no one. "All they need is a way in. They could learn a lot from us. We might not retain fans as well as they do, but we certainly know how to attract new ones."

The nameless man thought back to a proposal he had written many years ago; one that had, in fact, begun the optimisation process that had seemingly damaged the sport beyond repair. Hadn't that been along similar lines to what the man in the ill-fitting suit seemed to be suggesting?

"If they were smart, they would adopt the formats that we play," he said. "From Twenty20 and through one-day internationals, they could pave a road to the World Test League. Once people reach that point, they stay with the sport, seemingly indefinitely."

The man in the ill-fitting suit stopped his pacing. "Once you'd got people interested in five-day matches, you could start to play more of them," he said. "You could have seven-match series. The biggest teams could play every year. The revenue would be phenomenal."

Around the table, eyes gleamed. The nameless man could see the logic, yet his eyes appeared to dim.

RSS FeedAlex Bowden blogs at King Cricket.
All quotes and "facts" in this article are made up, but you knew that already, didn't you?

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Comments: 4 
Posted by   on (January 20, 2012, 9:12 GMT)

I find this series depressing, yet very engaging. The game is beating the so called experts black and blue, and they're not able to understand how it is doing that. Great one.

Posted by trepuR on (January 19, 2012, 15:32 GMT)

i really want to see this epic triumph of test cricket come full circle MORE MORE MORE

Posted by bighit14 on (January 19, 2012, 14:32 GMT)

There is a person with a helmet in the ground. May be to save himself from 6s. Also an indication why test cricket is becoming more famous these days :)

Posted by Yolk_Eater on (January 19, 2012, 9:02 GMT)

i love it how the author makes it look like as if the board members are talking about 2 different sports, and not one.

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