Sub lime to the ridiculous
After an act of God an act of human expedience threatens the end of the old Kent mode. Ivo Tennant on a financial dilemma not exclusive to Canterbury
The bonus payments by the ECB from last year's record Test match takings, coupled with the surge of interest in cricket might be thought to have made every first-class county solvent but several who did not benefit from hosting Australia reported thumping losses, most notably Hampshire, Kent and Sussex. All clubs without Test grounds are seeking a palliative, be it through redevelopment, concerts, one-day internationals or, best of all, a slug of cash from a very rich man.
Sussex, who made a loss of £442,327, have a £10.5million legacy from Spen Cama. Hampshire have Rod Bransgrove, who has put £5 million (and rising) into The Rose Bowl. It would not exist without him. Glamorgan, contentiously, will soon be staging Test cricket. Somerset have the support of Taunton Deane Council as they plan to spend £60 million on developing the County Ground. Derbyshire have built a hotel with conference rooms and revamped the Racecourse Ground to considerable acclaim. And Kent have ... nothing.
They made a record loss of over £300,000 last year, of which some £100,000 went on mismanaged catering. The reaction of the committee and chief executive, Paul Millman, was to sell the painting of the 1906 Championship-winning side by Albert Chevallier Tayler and to propose a building programme involving a 120-bed hotel, leisure centre and two housing estates on the Bat and Ball pub car park and the nets behind the pavilion.
Kent's view is that there is no alternative. "We play 40 days of county cricket on the ground, which in itself does not finance the club," said Millman. "There are old listed buildings to be maintained and we need to generate extra income."
But Canterbury is no ordinary venue. Besides its ancient peace it puts on the oldest of cricket festivals. The hotel, however sympathetically designed, will be too close to the rope for charm. Anyone who has seen the unappealing new hall of residence at Fenner's in Cambridge will know the oppression of such buildings, regardless of the increase in noise and traffic and reduction in parking for members. The treasured ambience will be lost for ever.
The die is not cast. The project requires planning permission and the support of the membership at an Extraordinary General Meeting this autumn. There will be opposition from protest groups and prominent members, including a former chief executive, Jim Woodhouse, and, in a more qualified way, from a former president and ex-Governor of the Bank of England, Lord Kingsdown.
Woodhouse, who will speak at the EGM, believes proven financial expertise from within the county (meaning the likes of Kingsdown) should be consulted beforehand. "The financial nous at the club is not good enough to make such a stupendous decision as this. If I was still running the club, I would not want to make that decision myself."
Kingsdown says: "I feel less concerned about the sale of the car park than the hotel because of its effect on the atmosphere of the ground. I would need to be convinced it would be a commercial success in a not very large city. I would like to think we can avoid it."
How, then, can county clubs stay solvent without wrecking some of the more atmospheric grounds? Bransgrove, who admires Kent's initiative, feels their alternative was to move grounds. He himself has embraced most innovations from a golf course to a hotel to regular use of the banqueting suite in winter. But a deficit of more than £800,000 last year convinced him that Test cricket was a necessity.
Meanwhile salaries rocket. An international coach of repute can command nigh on a six-figure salary. Counties budget on spending £100,000 on a player of international class. The very best, like Shane Warne, cost more. That most valued of performers, the allrounder who excels in the one-day game but has not crossed the threshold to international cricket, so is available for all or most of the season, can pick up £80,000-£90,000 a year.
Mark Newton, chief executive of Worcestershire, believes a county can still be profitable through good housekeeping, without extensive ground development. "We have shown a surplus of £50,000 for the past three years even though we had to spend £55,000 on doing up the pavilion last winter." Some might say they have little option. "As the ground is on a flood plain, it cannot be turned into a housing site," says Newton.
"Counties are trying to compete in the labour market and some will spend too much on salaries in order to buy success," said Richard Gould, chief executive of Somerset, who were also in the black last year. "There is a danger of going down the Leeds United route. We are a town-centre location and so have more opportunity to attract banqueting and conferences. Concerts such as the one we staged by Elton John in June are worth the revenue of two one-day matches. We reckon our development, once finished, will add £500,000 net income a year, without any international cricket. I don't think there is an alternative to redevelopment."
Ivo Tennant writes on cricket for The Times and Sunday Times Sub lime to the ridiculous