Wisden Cricketer / Features

Successful counties with weak bank balances

Victory no passport to profit

Sussex count their double cost and counties outside the Test circle are selling their souls for survival, reports Paul Coupar

August 14, 2007

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Sussex count their double cost and counties outside the Test circle are selling their souls for survival, reports Paul Coupar.



Last year Sussex lost £389,466 despite a Championship and C&G double © Getty Images
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With two Championship titles and a triumphant Lord's final inside four seasons, a rainbow seems to have settled over Hove. But instead of a pot of gold, Sussex found a large red bill - stamped "Urgent".

Last year they lost £389,466 despite a Championship and C&G double. The wage demands of successful players got stiffer; extra prize money of £143,000 failed to make up the shortfall. "Winning trophies cost us money. That's the bottom line," says their chief executive, Gus Mackay. And the non-Test-hosting counties, like Sussex, increasingly fall into one of two categories - those with healthy bank balances but empty trophy cabinets (Derbyshire, Worcestershire) and those whose strength on the field contrasts with financial worries off it (Sussex, Hampshire, Kent).

So how to square the circle, find success on and off the field? Bid for Tests? Tack gyms, flats, hotels or leisure centres on to your ground to boost income? Or cut costs and hope for the best come the season?

The Test match route is hard, as Hampshire have found. Only a gift of several millions from their chairman, Rod Bransgrove, in the early 2000s kept them alive, as they built a Test match stadium - with matching costs - but failed to attract Test cricket. The potential rewards are big - one county admits it makes around £750,000 (minus costs) from hosting a Test.

But competition is rough. Three of a summer's seven Tests go to the London grounds; the remnants are fought over by seven others - four traditional Test grounds, plus Cardiff, Chester-le-Street and Hampshire's Rose Bowl. With the field crowded, smaller counties are searching for alternative routes to financial stability, shortcuts across the allotments.

Essex, Kent, Somerset, Sussex and Worcestershire all hope to transform their grounds in the coming years, adding conference centres, luxury flats, hotels and even small housing developments. In each case the idea is to provide a facility that makes money 365 days a year. The extra income is desperately needed. County finances are often built on little more than hope.

Almost a quarter of Sussex's income comes from Twenty20; a fortnight's rain at the wrong time would be catastrophic, as shown during the June deluges when county chief executives called a panicky meeting to consider rescheduling washed-out games. "The challenge is to reach a breakeven position," says Mackay.

Derbyshire have already reached that point - but unlike Sussex they remain marooned in both bottom divisions. Ticket income has almost tripled since 2004, thanks to higher prices for adults and free entry for kids (who bring along mum and dad anyway). Twenty20 has been crucial: in 2006 one 20-over game made more money than the season's Championship cricket. Conferences and banqueting have also boosted income. A quarter of revenue now comes from non-cricketing activities.

Twenty20 has been crucial: in 2006 one 20-over game made more money than the season's Championship cricket. Conferences and banqueting have also boosted income. A quarter of revenue now comes from non-cricketing activities.

But their chief executive, Tom Sears, admits Derbyshire have to trim costs too, "to cut our cloth according to our resources. You have to look at every pound going out. You have to be that anal." Last winter it came down to a choice between pre-season training in the sun or signing Ian Harvey. They chose Harvey and a weekend in the Peak District.

"There's no doubt the Test match counties operate in a completely different sphere," says Sears. Still, he remains upbeat about the chances of combining success on and off the field: "If you target your resources, you can compete." However, despite clear improvements, the county has not made it out of either second division, with a lack of stand-out players (demanding stand-out wages) telling against them. But they did break even last year.

Hugh Griffiths, the former Sussex chief executive, is less sure he can resolve the dilemma. "We could survive without Spen's money," he said recently, commenting on Spen Cama's £10 million legacy to the club, "but almost certainly in Division Two and with the inadequate ground facilities we now have." His successor, Mackay, agrees. "You can compete on the field but you risk pushing the club into serious financial shortfall. Our job is to produce the best side within our financial means. And we've gone too far in the past few years.

For small clubs to succeed and make a profit is very, very challenging." Meeting that challenge could cause painful collateral damage. Worcestershire has just received permission for a £10 million redevelopment, including a hotel, as illustrated above. That famous home of cakes and quiet, the Ladies' Pavilion, will be torn down. Trees will be felled. At equally rustic Canterbury Kent plan a 120-room hotel, a leisure centre and two small housing developments. The message seems to be that pretty grounds make graves for county clubs. And the changes could be painful for everyone - except the accountants.

Both counties argue they have no alternative. If the experiences of Derbyshire and Sussex are anything to go by, that may be true: the dream of watching a small county side win the Championship from a deckchair under a tree in an unspoiled ground is becoming increasingly distant.

This article was first published in the August issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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