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Feature

Where does the Hundred go from here?

The ECB has ambitions to turn the competition into the biggest event in English cricket, but has a number of difficult questions to answer

Ben Bloom
31-Mar-2024
The women's game has benefitted the most from the Hundred, but the women's Hundred would not be able to keep pace with an expansion in the men's game  •  Getty Images

The women's game has benefitted the most from the Hundred, but the women's Hundred would not be able to keep pace with an expansion in the men's game  •  Getty Images

Even the Hundred's most ardent supporters recognise the need for change. "We're all agreed that the setup of the teams as pop-up start-ups was perhaps a good short-term measure but not a long-term fix," admits ECB chief executive Richard Gould. "Nobody thinks we should stay as we are."
The governing body's ambition is to turn the Hundred into the most attractive, compelling, profitable and successful short-form tournament in the world, behind the impregnable IPL. The question is how best to achieve such an ambitious goal (if it might even be possible). The 2024 tournament will look the same as it has done in previous years. But imminent alterations are deemed vital.
The BBC's deal for both international cricket and the Hundred expires at the end of the 2024 season, while Sky's current contract - which provides the ECB with around £220m per year - runs until 2028. The governing body is accordingly desperate to have the competition revamped in time for either 2025 or, at the absolute latest, 2026 so it can show broadcasters the Hundred's value before going to market.
"Money is rocket fuel," states Vikram Banerjee, the ECB's director of strategy and corporate development. It is with such an outlook that the governing body is prepared to start hunting for investment.
In late 2022, the ECB reportedly received an offer from the Bridgepoint Group, a private equity firm, of around £300m for a 75% stake in The Hundred. The offer was rejected, with ECB chairman Thompson firmly stating: "I'm determined we're not going to be opportunistic about this, we're going to be strategic. I think the ECB would need to think very long and hard if we were to sell four or five weeks of the English summer to a third party."
Gould now says the "consensus is we should not be selling the competition to a Bridgepoint or a CVC Capital Partners [who have invested into numerous rugby union competitions and own Gujarat Titans] because we would lose control of our window". Instead, he says, "everybody is aligned with a view that it should be focused on trying to encourage investment into the teams".
What that looks like is a major source of contention. The eight city-based teams are currently wholly owned by the ECB. Any structural change requires permission from the counties in the form of the usual two-thirds majority in any vote, regardless of the chosen equity split between the governing body, a team's constituent or host counties, and any potential private investor. Who might provide the cash should investment opportunities arise is a big question.
As a Londoner, Mike Fordham grew up watching Surrey and is a resolute all-format cricket fan. But, these days, he is considered one of the world's foremost short-form experts. Currently head of league operations for the ILT20 in the UAE, Fordham has previously been chief executive of the IPL franchise Rajasthan Royals, head of the Hundred at the ECB, and was involved in the launch of the IPL and CPL. So he knows better than most the perception of England's newest tournament from afar.
"English cricket is definitely viewed as attractive to external investors," says Fordham. "When there comes an opportunity to invest, there will definitely be substantial interest from the subcontinent. Nearly every IPL franchise would be interested in investing in an English franchise."
Yet he raises concerns over attempts to promote a hybrid ownership model that would deny private investors full power over their business: "One of the problems with the Hundred franchises is they aren't like a county but they also aren't like a Mumbai Indians. The IPL franchises, because they are privately owned, are developing an independent brand and fanbase. They are morphing more into what a Premier League football club is. I don't really see the Northern Superchargers becoming like that. They aren't really one thing or another."
In the enviable position of turning over close to double what any other county makes each year, Surrey chairman Oli Slipper relishes greater ownership of the Oval Invincibles franchise that play at their home ground, suggesting he would likely not need to sell any stake. "We can then feel it is our team," he told The Telegraph in late 2023.
"From a brand perspective, I hope we can brand it as a Surrey-branded team and part of our cricket ecosystem. We sold 125,000 Hundred tickets last summer but I would like it to be something the entire membership can get behind. If we can make some small tweaks to the ownership branding then this can be an extremely important product for Surrey."
As well as seeking money from external sources, the ECB is intent on altering the structure of the Hundred, and even potentially scrapping its unique 100-ball format in the future in favour of a switch to conventional T20 cricket. Where that would leave the tournament's name is unknown.
Gould and Thompson spent much of late 2023 and early 2024 discussing options with counties, sponsors and broadcasters. One possibility was an expansion to create teams in the south-west and north-east of England. Gould also advocated the potential to one day move to what was coined the 'investable pyramid', either with 18 counties across two divisions, or perhaps even up to 39 teams, comprising all first-class and national (formerly minor) counties.
"An eight-team closed league without promotion and relegation, along the lines of the IPL, is more attractive to investors than an 18-team competition with promotion and relegation"
Mike Fordham, former head of the Hundred
Central to that model was the existence of promotion and relegation between tiers. "I don't mind if someone goes down to Cornwall and does a Ryan Reynolds [the Hollywood actor who bought Wrexham Football Club in 2020], builds a 10,000-seater stadium in Penzance and takes them all the way through," said Gould. "There could be a lot of fun for that regional county."
Gould and Thompson envisaged such a structure helping to ease antipathy towards the tournament from some counties, while creating potential for investment opportunities at all - rather than only the largest - clubs. However, a proposal that effectively sought to rip up the current competition and start entirely anew after only a handful of seasons swiftly raised concerns.
If every county was involved, would players still move to other franchises for the duration of the tournament? Would there still be a place for the T20 Blast? What might happen if the biggest teams, players and grounds fell out of the top division, and therefore away from televised matches? Would investors run the risk of ploughing money into a team that might not compete in the top tier? The idea of headline stars like Ben Stokes or Jos Buttler operating in a second division would be at odds with the desire to create a world-leading league.
Suggestions of a tiered salary cap or minimum ground capacity to compete in the highest division were discussed to prevent such an eventuality from occurring. While the meritocratic process of promotion and relegation is intrinsic to many British sports, it is a relatively new addition to English cricket, featuring in just one competition (the County Championship) for little more than two decades. "An eight-team closed league without promotion and relegation, along the lines of the IPL, is more attractive to investors than an 18-team competition with promotion and relegation," confirms Fordham.
The PCA expressed concerns over the pressure that a wholesale expansion of the Hundred might place on an already hectic schedule, with the potential inclusion of all counties meaning the One-Day Cup could no longer run concurrently. The other main area of apprehension concerned the effect on the women's game, which has benefited enormously from the Hundred, especially the happy accident of men and women's double-headers, which emerged as a result of the Covid pandemic.
"People are talking about Alice Capsey the way they would not be doing if she hadn't made the impact she made on the Hundred," said Thompson. "Women's cricket wouldn't have broken through the way it has." A lack of depth in the women's game means any major expansion of men's teams would be impossible to replicate without watering down the level of competition. Promotion and relegation would also see a franchise's male and female teams potentially operating in different tiers, rendering double-headers considerably more difficult to schedule.
For all the huge leaps women's cricket has made in recent years, losing the alignment with their male counterparts in the Hundred would severely weaken a product that would suffer immensely from having to stand on its own two feet at this fledgling stage. The Hundred's headaches continue.
After its overwhelmingly schismatic creation and difficulty in winning over audiences during the first two editions, the 2023 season of the Hundred began amid a backdrop of gloom, caused primarily by the end of a captivating Ashes series that was over by August.
Yet the following month was widely considered to be the tournament's strongest campaign to date, with healthy numbers inside stadiums treated to a wealth of excitingly close games. Affinities to newly created franchises were visibly growing, especially among a younger generation lacking a strong historic relationship to a county.
Significant issues remain, with the abundance of cricket played domestically making the status quo unworkable in anything other than the short term. No other major cricketing nation has two flagship short-form competitions, but Thompson has spoken of a desire to ensure the Hundred and T20 Blast "can co-exist together … one doesn't cannibalise the other".
Regardless of what its naysayers might hope, English cricket's newest competition is not simply going to disappear. "The genie is out of the bottle and we're not going to be able to put it back," says Northamptonshire chief executive Ray Payne. Angus Fraser, Middlesex cricket development director, adds: "People need to realise that there's a train leaving and either you get on it or you get left behind. The Hundred is here, stop fighting it."
This is an edited excerpt from Batting For Time: The Fight to Keep English Cricket Alive, by Ben Bloom, available now via Pitch Publishing (UK)

Ben Bloom is a freelance sports journalist who spent 11 years at the Telegraph