County cricket's never-ending financial crises, 1983

The continuing struggle for survival


For most of its history, county cricket has lurched from one financial crisis to another. Only during the two immediate post-war periods did large crowds invade county grounds to provide relative security for clubs and players alike. Yet in spite of seemingly regular predictions that the end for cricket, or rather professional cricket, was nigh, the game has survived for the most part in a form which would have been immediately recognisable to its practitioners in late Victorian England. This thought is at the same time both reassuring and worrying. It is reassuring because the warmth of feeling for the game throughout English society has seen it safely through these crises; it is worrying lest today's administrators rely too heavily on this history of survival.

Cricket has traditionally provided for its professionals no more than a reasonable way of life and the hope, not always realised, of a rewarding benefit which would provide secondary employment when limbs or faculties forced a reluctant retirement. It became abruptly apparent, however, during the 1960s, that the game could not for very much longer support such an existence, even for a quite small number of players. As a result, a period of commercialism began with the advent of the knockout cup, sponsored on its inception by Gillette Industries Limited. Along with the growing awareness of the need to attract spectators back to cricket came the realisation that cricket could not survive without commercial support. It would be industry which would replace the wealthy benefactors of inter-war years. But there would be an important difference. Sponsorship is a reward-seeking, commercial activity and not an exercise in altruism. Cricket would have to adjust to its new partner and to a new image.

The limited-overs knockout competition was to bring its own problems. Above all, attitudes changed, and success on the field, previously the plaything of a small group of the more heavily populated counties, became paramount. Whereas overseas players helped to redress the county population imbalance, they increased the pressure to win. Financial rewards for international cricketers needed to be improved and the best English cricketers did not expect to lag behind the cricketing mercenaries.

The profound shock waves which swept through the cricket establishment worldwide at the formation of World Series Cricket in 1977 are proof that the commercial opportunities which offered themselves, once the Gillette sponsorship was adopted, were declined. Cricket was admittedly saved for the seventies, but other sports were left to capitalise on the interest newly shown by business and commercial organisations. Open tennis saw players' earnings multiply many times over, and golf's great achievement in Britain was to increase substantially the prize-money for the winner of its Open Championship while subjugating the size of the winner's purse to the prestige and traditional value of winning itself - proof that heavy commercialisation need not necessarily detract from tradition and the purity of a game.

Much of it had happened before. The parallels between William Clarke's operation in the mid-nineteenth century and World Series Cricket are obvious. Clarke, in earning for himself considerable sums of money, clashed frequently with the established county game, with Lord's, and eventually with a rival organisation set up by James Dean and John Wisden, two of his own players who believed his profit margins were excessive. The immediate rewards offered by World Series Cricket in 1977 were too good for a large number of international cricketers to refuse, but such an experiment, parasitic as it was and superimposed on the established game, could not survive as a long-term threat. The commercial success of the Melbourne Centenary Test match in March, 1977, underlined both cricket's commercial potential at the highest level and the relatively poor rewards accepted until then by its top players. Thus World Series Cricket provided a logical if unwelcome jolt for the professional game. It provoked a new approach and a greater acceptance of the need for further commercialism. It posed many new problems, but solving them also helped to overcome previously unresolved difficulties. As a result, a hesitant acceptance of the need to improve cricketers' salaries, particularly at the highest level, has been at the heart of the flurry of commercial activity undertaken both by individual counties and centrally by the Test and County Cricket Board since 1977. Professional cricket could survive only if it could provide a rewarding career for its players.

Necessity has indeed proved the mother of invention. The marketing department of the Test and County Cricket Board, now a full-time operation, oversees an income to English cricket approaching £3 million. Ironically, as it became apparent that the prices charged for national sponsorships were commercially unrealistic and could be increased, Gillette were the first major casualty. To a large extent, they were the victims of their own success. Gillette's name had become synonymous with cricket's knockout cup during a sponsorship lasting eighteen years. The popularity of the competition had increased the value of a sponsorship which started at £6,500 to a startling £250,000, a sum which rather more than compensates for inflation. Gillette declined the increased cost and the National Westminster Bank were pleased to become involved in cricket. Gillette departed from the scene content that their long involvement with the game had been beneficial both to their own company objectives and to cricket.

Of course the John Player League (1969) and the Benson and Hedges Cup (1972) had been in existence well before 1977. The former had been a competition designed for purely commercial reasons and sold simultaneously to the sponsor and to television. Both have proved successful, and the price to their sponsors has been dramatically increased in 1982 and 1983 respectively. In a further heightening of commercialism, the County Championship became the Schweppes Championship in 1977. The major innovation, however, was the sponsorship of Test matches in England by the Cornhill Insurance Group.

This was a sponsorship hurriedly undertaken in the confusion which followed the formation of World Series Cricket, and represented something of a gamble for the Cornhill company. It has proved so successful that the Test and County Cricket Board has been able more than to double its asking price for a continuation of the agreement in 1983 - a price which Cornhill are prepared to pay. The Cornhill sponsorship of Test cricket in England is acknowledged as one of the outstanding successes in the general field of sports sponsorship. Public awareness of the Cornhill name increased from 2 per cent to 17 per cent as a direct result of their sponsorship and put the company into the top five in insurance for instant recognition.

This new, more business-like approach to the finances of the game, adopted in recent years at national level, has been mirrored, again of necessity, at county level, with considerable local success. The counties have been forced to use their facilities and their grounds to the full. Investment has been made in executive boxes, entertaining suites and, in some counties, in the building of squash courts. Local firms have responded to this encouragement, and the partnerships at county level between business and cricket have increased considerably the game's income. In recent years perimeter advertising and lotteries have also bolstered the game. Both have produced huge sums of money. Cricket has achieved more television time than any other sport, and the advertising industry has been quick to take advantage of the sites on cricket grounds. Counties have managed to swell their coffers in a way previously undreamt of.

The fruits of this dramatic growth of commercialism reached their peak in 1981. An entertaining and heavily attended Ashes series coincided with this peak, and nearly all the first-class counties reported profits for the year. Surpluses in excess of six figures were returned in some cases. To underline this achievement it has to be remembered that global expenditure on cricket and cricketers had almost trebled in a little over three years. But the financial situation changed considerably in 1982, and although there is a strong temptation to place the blame for this on a poorly-attended Test series with India, that would be hiding the whole truth. The fear must be that if income has been maximised both nationally and in the counties, and yet, as in 1982, large losses still result, then cricket has still not got the equation right. Although there are still pockets of income to be tapped, we are left with the harrowing thought that another financial crisis is imminent. There are signs that income from perimeter advertising and from lotteries is decreasing, and the recession has led to a rationalisation of business involvement at county level.

A number of solutions have been advanced: more cricket, less cricket, a four-day County Championship with one-day cricket at weekends. Cricketing arguments augment and sometimes override financial considerations. The only certain conclusion is that administrators cannot rely on the game's history of survival. There remains a general short-sightedness in the county game. It was always stressed by the TCCB that receipts from an Australian series would produce considerably more income for each county than the Test matches of 1982, against India and Pakistan. With West Indies coming second in the league table of attendances, it seems financially advisable to make sure that they and Australia do not come to England in successive years.

Yet the sharp fluctuation in financial fortunes between 1981 and 1982 does suggest poor county budgeting, which, in most cases, is an annual exercise. It means, effectively, that a county will spend virtually all its income in any one year to try to achieve success on the field. Pressure from the Cricketers' Association for a minimum earnings level for all cricketers and the move to longer contracts for players have played havoc with one-year budgets. A more sophisticated financial approach is required. The high number of redundant players at the end of 1982 is testimony to this.

Cricket, then, must be flexible, adaptable and financially more farseeing. A central decision-making body would, I think, be a great boost for the game. The somewhat unwieldy democracy of the TCCB committee system is hard-pressed to react quickly enough to the ever-changing demands of the 1980s. At the end of the 1981 season there was a general feeling that two additional County Championship games would be beneficial. In the light of the financial euphoria at the time, the Championship programme was increased to 24 matches for each county in 1983. It is generally agreed that for financial reasons this decision would not have been taken at the end of the 1982 season. Yet a change for 1984 would have to be made almost before the start of the 1983 season, and there is understandable reluctance to reject an experiment before it has begun.

The committee system, able to call upon a wealth of expertise throughout the country, could, I believe, be made more efficient at national level by an executive body which has both foresight and teeth. Without this, cricket will continue to lurch from one financial crisis to another when there is no need. Until still more financial sophistication is applied, neither four-day Championship cricket nor more limited-overs matches will provide long-term security. By creating a real executive, the decision-making process could be quickened throughout the entire administration of the professional game.

© John Wisden & Co