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News Analysis

Birmingham experiment in the balance

After 132 years, Warwickshire were suddenly known in Twenty20 cricket as the Birmingham Bears. Tim Wigmore reflects whether one of county cricket's most unusual moves has been a success

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
Varun Chopra, captain of, err, Birmingham, kisses the NatWest Blast trophy  •  PA Photos

Varun Chopra, captain of, err, Birmingham, kisses the NatWest Blast trophy  •  PA Photos

Of all the experiments that counties have tried to attract new fans, perhaps none has been as unconventional as Warwickshire's. After 132 years the county, at least in Twenty20 cricket, was suddenly no more. The Birmingham Bears were born in 2014.
A few months later, they won the NatWest T20 Blast at Edgbaston. But victory could not shield Warwickshire from charges that they had been contemptuous of their traditional supporters.
Around 1500 supporters had joined a Facebook group in protest against the name change, which the Birmingham Mail's then cricket correspondent Brian Halford (a job now no longer) denounced as "naff and rather insecure attention-grabbing".
For some supporters, therefore, Finals Day brought a tainted triumph. "It was really weird celebrating a Birmingham win," Adam Veysey, the founder of the Facebook group, reflected.
The decision to change Warwickshire's brand for Twenty20 cricket was made in November 2013 - and Birmingham City Council was the prime mover. The council had previously granted Warwickshire a £20m loan to aid their ground redevelopment.
Impressed that the British Asian population flocked to Edgbaston for the 2013 Champions Trophy, it suggested that Warwickshire change their name in an attempt to engage the Asian demographic, normally under-represented at county matches.
"The T20 game I very much see as bringing a new audience to cricket," explained Ian Ward, the deputy leader of Birmingham City Council. "T20 might be the gateway in but once you've got the interest in cricket you convert the audience to other formats of the game."
Even with the rebranding to Birmingham Bears, and the signing of former Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik, the Asian community continued to be hugely under-represented at domestic T20 cricket last season.
The Warwickshire board (which includes Ward, as one of two representatives from the council) thought that he had a point. "We were keen to try and work closely both with Birmingham City Council and the inner-city population to try and attract a new audience rather than rely on an established audience," said Warwickshire's chief executive Colin Povey.
While "there were a few people who thought that the world would end" because of the name change, traditionalists were not his concern. The rebranding was designed "to try and send a clear signal that we wanted the local population, many of whom are of an Asian background, to reappraise and reconsider."
A year on, the experiment is best judged as a qualified success. The total value of T20 ticket sales increased by 30% in 2014, the club was one of a few to see a small increase in average T20 attendances from 2013 to 2014, even as the number of home games increased from five to seven; and the derby against Worcestershire attracted the top home crowd for six years.
But the county (or was it now a city?) started from a disappointingly low base considering their large catchment area. There was a greater promotional commitment and tickets were cheaper. And, in 2014, as Povey conceded, winning helped. And it is unclear that the Asian population has bought into the new branding as much as was envisaged.
In Birmingham the combined Bangladeshi-Indian-Pakistani population is 22%. When India or Pakistan play England at Edgbaston, Povey estimates that as much as 70% of the crowd can be of Asian ethnicity.
But even with the rebranding to Birmingham Bears, and the signing of former Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik, the Asian community continued to be hugely under-represented at domestic T20 cricket last season.
"We've probably seen less attendance from Asian fans than we would have liked," Povey accepted. "It certainly wouldn't be anything like a quarter of the attendances that we've had, which if that's the general demographic in the city, you'd be saying 'well, why isn't that?'"
While he claimed that there has been an upturn from previous seasons, the club's ability to target the Asian population seems less sophisticated than that undertaken by some other counties. Povey's own measurement is based on "judging it by a straw poll of me wondering around the ground on the nights that we've got fixtures."
In fact, perhaps the most significant result of the rebranding has been to make the club more attractive to the corporate world. Ward pushed the council's message that the name change has "allowed a stronger connection with the corporate market" because "Birmingham businesses are more willing to financially support a proposition that includes the word Birmingham."
Still, no one claims that the rebranding of Warwickshire has been a panacea. That might weaken the argument of those who argue that having teams named after, and explicitly identified with, cities will instantly reinvigorate domestic T20 cricket. Or it might just expose the folly of a system when only one county out of 18 makes the leap, leaving the media and spectators somewhat bewildered.
An ECB spokesperson said: "Any team wishing to change their name must have it signed off by the ECB board, with each case judged on their own individual merits."
Individual needs have therefore been placed above a unified approach.
But the club has not come this far to abandon the experiment after one year. "Running this for one season and then concluding whether this has been successful or unsuccessful is not credible. We need to run it over a longer period," Ward said.
Povey's commitment was that the moniker of the Birmingham Bears will remain for "the medium-term." It all means that the incongruous spectacle of the city of Birmingham taking on traditional counties will continue - but only in the shortest format.
"The fact we've got Birmingham on the kits in one competition, in my mind it's no more revolutionary than playing in coloured kits or playing with pink balls," said Povey.
"This is just one innovation in a whole series of innovations if we are to persuade non cricket lovers, or non cricket fans, to come and sample what's going on with the game."
The club categorically has no plans to extend the rebranding to other formats of the game. And while traditionalists might fear the Birmingham Bears experiment leading incontrovertibly to franchises. Povey dismissed that discussion as "completely different."
Perhaps, in time, other counties will follow Warwickshire's lead in rebranding their T20 side after a city. But there is something rather diffident and apologetic about the whole process. It is all very English.

Tim Wigmore is working on a collaborative book on Associate cricket, out in January 2015