Freddie Wilde is a freelance T20 journalist. @fwildecricket
At the turn of the century, with attendances in county cricket in serious decline and the health of the sport in genuine danger, Stuart Robertson was the marketing manager at the ECB.
Robertson headed a team that helped carry out the single largest piece of consumer research cricket had ever seen. The survey discovered that people in the UK found cricket to be "inaccessible". It was this that spurred Robertson and his team at the ECB to conceptualise the Twenty20 format and, in 2003, bring it to professional county cricket in England.
Twelve years, many leagues and millions of dollars spent on the format later, ESPNcricinfo spoke to Robertson about the health of domestic T20 cricket in England, the possibility of a franchise competition and the future of the sport.
Ten years on from leaving the ECB, are you happy with the direction in which English T20 has gone?
I'm happier now but I wasn't happy for a while. I think the game got greedy. So we had a format. I think I am right in saying the first season of the competition lasted 11 days. It was a real short, sharp festival in the middle of the summer, which grouped all the best players together and all of that. Now the smaller grounds, who had huge gate receipts, thought 'We want more of this' and they could almost fill the ground all the time with 3000, 4000 seats. But the bigger grounds, even a really good cricket ground - a crowd of 15,000 at Lord's, the ground is half empty. And as we got greedier and the game got greedier, we were asking the same customer to come two or three times in a wage packet … and it's too many.
I think what we've seen is over the years, every year bar one, the total number of people watching T20 cricket has increased but the average attendance has been falling for a while because there's been more and more of it. So yes, you've got more people coming, but the average attendance has been going down. And one of the beauties of sport and what makes people go to sport as a social occasion is feeling and looking popular and then it creates its own atmosphere and it becomes self-perpetuating. The minute you start losing the atmosphere at a live sporting event people become more fickle and they look for something else to perhaps spend their leisure pound on. So I wasn't happy for a while, the game got greedy, they overegged it, they were playing too much of it and it was losing some of that fizz.
I think there were two alternatives. One was to drastically cut the number of matches and concentrate it into a small period. Or, if they were going to play as much as they've been playing, then spread it out over the season and that's what we're now doing. So the last couple of seasons we have developed this schedule which is predominantly Friday nights and it is spread out a bit further and I think that's a decent compromise and I'm really looking forward to seeing how that beds in. I think we can do something quite exciting with that.
And the idea of franchises? Basically cutting the number of teams in half - is that something that ever appealed to you?
It absolutely did and there are lots of merits to doing that. If we did it properly, if we fully invested in it, if we had the best players in the world coming over to play, a la IPL and Big Bash, yeah I think that would be fantastic. I think the game could grow generally and there would be more cash to share out amongst everybody. Politically, though, with the way the game in the UK is set up, I can't see it happening … there would be too many eggs broken. It's 18 firsts-class counties and a franchise system would pretty much take out half of them and for all the sensible side of doing it I think the heart side of it, the emotional side of it and the political side of it would make it difficult.
Initially T20 was seen as something to "save" county cricket but now tournaments in India and Australia generate their boards huge amounts of money, without the international market and reliance on the subcontinent. The purpose of T20 is shifting and perhaps the ECB should be considering a standalone TV deal for the domestic competition?
Yes, I think there is now sufficient value in the format to think about it as a separate element. Whether it is a TV deal, which is the biggest part of where the money is, or the centralised sponsorships that the ECB do, the advertising packages - because there is a big audience and it appeals to a big demographic. One thing that I am still frustrated a bit with is that we as a game are yet to really attract a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sponsor into that space. There is KFC in Australia, Pepsi in India - we've got banks and services still. No disrespect to NatWest, they've put in huge amounts of money into the game over the years, they're a good supporter of the game, as are most financial services and businesses that have been involved. But you're thinking this should be on the breakfast table, on the supermarket shelf, as a partner to drive attendances and increase the popularity of this whole thing. A franchise system might be a better way … but are we maximising the commercial opportunities that T20 has given us? I don't think we are.
The original survey was targeted it at the demographics that weren't interested in cricket. But a couple of years ago the ECB did another survey, which has produced the current format, and it was generally put to existing cricket fans. In 2002, you were looking for new demographics and it feels like they are running away from that idea. Is it not the point of T20 to attract new fans to the sport?
Of course it is. The ECB do laud that last piece of research as the biggest piece of customer research that the game has ever done - it usurped the one we did for T20. But you're absolutely right, it was predominantly about people who were already involved in the game and they were asking some pretty technical questions in there as well, about start days of Championship cricket, all sorts of really thorough questions.
What should drive the schedule? What is the most popular form of the game? If it is T20, after internationals, that should drive the schedule and fixtures. Which it is doing in part now - if you speak to Alan Fordham, head of first-class cricket operations at the ECB, the internationals go in the first part of the schedule and the next thing that goes in are the T20s. We need to think about what does the consumer want? What does the cricketer want? And we have to think of them because we have to make sure the playing programme means the quality of the on-field entertainment is as high as it can be. We don't want to be burning players out but sometimes things were being scheduled because it was difficult for players, when actually, the players are the entertainers and it should be positioned to meet the expectations and requirements of the customer. They should come first in all that we think about.
In the eyes of serial pessimists, 20 years down the line international cricket has receded away, the Ashes are played as a relic and T20 dominates, with players hopping from league to league. How do you see the future unfolding?
I think there's a danger of that. But what I usually say to that question is that market forces will determine it. We are a business at the end of the day, we have income and we have expenditure and we rely on people spending their money on cricket, whether that's people subscribing to TV or paying for tickets, ultimately the customer will decided.
I don't want to see Test cricket disappear, I think it is a fantastic format of the game but I think it needs a bit more context. The contextual element of it seems to be missing. It becomes a bit of a treadmill. I really liked the idea of the World Test Championship and I was sad to see that dropped because I thought that would've helped give each series and each match context, if every game was working towards something where the top two teams play off for the World Championship of Test cricket, then fantastic. The flip side of that is, if the game is going to grow globally, is Test cricket the format by which the game will grow in Affiliate and Associate nations? No it is not. T20 is the format that will happen in, so you talk to Afghanistan and around the world … these smaller nations, these emerging nations, a format like T20 is perfect for them to cut their teeth in international cricket. So to protect the game and grow the game globally, I think that T20 should and will continue to dominate in that emerging context.
I would love to see Test cricket always as the pinnacle of the game but I think it needs context to do that. But if Test cricket withered and died without T20 beneath it, and the game withered and died then that is disaster and carnage. But if Test cricket withered and died but another format stepped in behind it and kept the game flourishing, with 22 people involved, with a bat and a ball and some stumps - well, it might look a bit different and feel a bit different but if it keeps the game going for another 100, 150 years, then what's wrong with that?