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T20 attendances tell two tales

Impressive crowd figures have been revealed for the new NatWest Blast but dig a little deeper and they reveal a different story that should concern county lovers

George Dobell
George Dobell
Leonard Cohen once defined a pessimist as a person expecting rain, an optimist as a person expecting sunshine and himself as a man for whom such descriptions were irrelevant: he was already soaking wet.
Perhaps it is the same with domestic T20 cricket in England. While figures produced by the ECB to celebrate record figures in the re-launched NatWest Blast could be used to argue that the game was growing healthily, they could equally be interpreted to argue a worrying shrinkage.
Ultimately, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the domestic game has a tough fight on its hand to remain relevant and solvent. The re-launch and re-scheduling of the T20 games (the majority are now held on Friday nights) has made very little difference.
With a record gate of 23,000 at Edgbaston for NatWest Blast T20 Finals Day, overall attendance will pass 700,000 for the first time in its 12-year history. And, the average attendance figure - 5772 - is up about 12% on the average figures - 5153 - for matches over the last five years. All of which sounds well and good. But when you scratch the surface of the figures, the shine soon wears off.
The average attendance figure this year has actually declined from 6503 per game in 2013 to 5772 in 2014. That is a drop of around 11% per game from last year.
And, when you bear in mind that this season benefited from increased marketing, better scheduling and was designed as the start of a development that would see attendance double over the next four years, it becomes hard to avoid the unsettling conclusion that the mass market - the market that attends football, goes to the cinema and has disposable income to spend in pubs and restaurants - simply doesn't want to buy what county cricket is selling.
For all the unpalatable consequences of that conclusion, it is one that must not be ignored.
It would, of course, be wrong to draw firm conclusions from such black and white statistics. They do not, for example, reflect that 2013 was a rare summer free of football World Cups, Olympics or similar. It does not reflect that the competition in 2013 was blessed with excellent weather. It does not reflect that the tournament followed on the heels of a successful Champions Trophy that promoted cricket and built some sort of momentum for the game.
Equally, there are areas in which the ECB could tinker with the schedule in the realistic hope of improving the figures ahead of next year. For a start, it seems odd that the group stages of a competition aimed at a family audience starts in May - in the middle of exams - and ends just as the school holidays begin. Equally, there are currently 14 group games meaning that some sides play each other twice and others just once. The increase to 16 will put more pressure on the schedule, but cricketers might be advised to look at the fixture list of baseball players before bemoaning their lot.
But it seems fanciful to suggest that such tinkering would provide the silver bullet solution that is required.
And it may well be fanciful to suggest that a move to a franchise, city-based tournament would prove helpful. While such competitions have worked in India and Australia, the model here is not comparable. The negatives might well outweigh the positives.
In an era without live English cricket on free-to-air TV, the role of clubs - the likes of Northamptonshire (who saw their attendances grow by 16%) and Somerset (who will lobby for more games on Sunday afternoons next year) and Leicestershire - is as much to promote the game in areas where it might otherwise wither and die than it is to compete and produce England players. If you take meaningful T20 cricket from such towns, you are jeopardising the game's future in vast regions of the country.
The answer might well lie in a return, a partial return, of cricket to free-to-air television. No amount of grass roots initiatives, no amount of investment in coaching schemes and improved facilities and school visits and photo shoots, can replace the inspirational value of one gripping game on TV witnessed by a fascinated child.
There are many fine players involved in the NatWest Blast T20 Finals Day: James Anderson, Ian Bell, Jos Buttler, Jason Roy and James Vince among them. But it might be relevant that - arguably, anyway - the two biggest names on display are Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff. Both men who built their reputations in an era when cricket was played on free-to-air TV and featured in the 2005 Ashes. More modern players simply cannot compete with the exposure they enjoyed.
A return to live English cricket on free-to-air TV is not, at first glance, imminent. Sky have bought exclusive rights to live cricket under the ECB's jurisdiction until 2019 and they understandably guard their subscription business model and their exclusivity fiercely.
Fair enough, too. At a time when free-to-air broadcasters - even those blessed with public money to spend on rights - showed little interest in the sport, Sky invested heavily in the game and have taken coverage of the sport to a new level. Recent broadcasting deals have resulted in unprecedented investment in the game at every level and seen the ECB lead the world in the development of women's cricket and disability cricket. It would be foolish to portray the Sky deal as bad for the game.
Equally, it would be foolish to portray the free-to-air broadcasters as the guardians of a golden age of cricket. Before the days of Sky, cricket fought for space among busy broadcasting schedules. Channel 4 persuaded the ECB to start Tests as 10.30am one summer - half-an-hour earlier than normal - so it could finish in time not to interrupt the scheduling of The Simpsons or Hollyoaks. Meanwhile, the historic Oval Test of 2005 was interrupted 13 times for coverage of horse racing; the "Botham's Ashes" of 1981 was interrupted by programmes such as Playschool, Chock-a-block and The skill of lip-reading (perhaps ideal for picking-up James Anderson's words of advice to opposition batsmen) while the two Ashes series broadcast by Channel 4 were interrupted, in all, by 33 hours' worth of horse racing. The past is often remembered with a romantic filter.
Unless something changes, the game will continue its gradual but inexorable decline. It already struggles to find space on back pages; it already struggles to find space in tabloid newspapers.
There is a possible solution, a middle path; a third way. Sky have, courtesy of their Pick channel, a free-to-air vehicle for providing "samples" of their shows. They have already experimented with showing highlights of the 2013-14 Ashes series and, in the past, have used the channel to attract would-be subscribers with shows such as Modern Family and Futurama.
If they could be persuaded that their own interests and the interests of the game in England could be served by showing some cricket - perhaps a regular highlights show offering coverage of the NatWest T20 Blast - then perhaps we might see a revival of interest in the game.
It should suit all parties to sustain the game, to encourage another generation of supporters, to develop a new consumer base. But whether it suits all parties to look beyond the next set of accounts, the next report to shareholders and the next bonus, is debatable.
But the evidence of recent months is that the current method is not working. Unless something changes, the game will continue its gradual but inexorable decline. It already struggles to find space on back pages; it already struggles to find space in tabloid newspapers. The Ashes was sealed, at Durham, in front of a ground far from full to capacity. The Investec Test series against India has been played, at times, in front of grounds barely half full. While the likes of the BBC and ESPNcricinfo have invested in excellent county coverage, the general decline in broadcasting of the domestic game is a serious threat to the viability of the sport. At least one county game has been played in front on an empty press box this season.
There is much to celebrate and enjoy in English cricket. There will be much to entertain and excite on Finals Day. The quality of the play remains high. But if cricket is not given the oxygen of exposure it will gently drift into irrelevance. We may not be soaking wet just yet, but we're fools if we ignore the growing evidence of the water rising around us.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo