Cricket PlayerOn 27 March 2017, the Chief Executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Tom Harrison, announced that, from 2020, there will (probably) be a new domestic Twenty20 tournament (in addition to the current Twenty20 Blast) designed to ‘rival the best in the world’.  Uniquely, the tournament will be city (as opposed to county) based and would, therefore, be a radical depart from the structure of domestic cricket as we know it.  Mr Harrison went further and stated that ‘[as] guardians of the game, it is the responsibility of all of us to steer cricket to a strong future and to pass is on in even better shape’.

The ECB made the proposal to its 41 members in London (comprising the Chairmen of the 18 First Class Counties, 21 County Boards in Non-First Class Counties, MCC and the Minor Counties Cricket Association).  The tournament is yet to be named.  This is in part because its formation is still subject to the approval of the ECB Executive Board (that will be sought on Tuesday 28 March 2017) to make the necessary changes to the body’s Articles of Association. That change must subsequently be approved by 31 of the ECB’s 41 members.

However, assuming such approval is obtained, the new tournament is expected take the following format:

  • Eight new teams (with team branding that will be distinct from current county cricket and the subsisting Natwest Twenty20 Blast teams)
  • Teams will be city based and will likely feature new, bigger grounds (with stadiums such as Wembley and the Olympic Stadium being considered)
  • Each team will comprise of 15-man squads featuring up to a maximum of three foreign players
  • Teams will recruit 13 of their 15-man squad from a Twenty20 draft; the remaining two members will come from Twenty20 players who have ‘excelled’ in the Twenty20 Blast
  • The new Twenty20 competition will be in addition to (and not in replacement of) current Twenty20 domestic competitions
  • The competition will feature 36 games over the course of 38 days to take place in July and August
  • Every game will be televised with each team having four home matches (and each team will play their closest geographical rivals at home and away while playing the other six teams only once)
  • The top four teams will participate in a play-off (with incentives for those finishing higher up the league table)
  • Every County Board in England and Wales will be linked to one of the eight teams
  • 10% of net revenues from the tournament will be reinvested in cricket participation

In making the announcement, Mr Harrison claimed that new tournament would ‘safeguard the future of the game and engage a generation of children that currently spends less time outside per day than prison inmates’. While the language is perhaps more colourful, the underlying sentiment behind the governing body’s decision will be familiar to regular Sports Shorts readers: this is a sport looking to use the new Twenty20 tournament to preserve its position in the UK’s sporting hierarchy, re-engage existing and attract new fans to the sport.  In particular, the ECB hopes that the tournament will:

  • Drive participation in cricket
  • Recruit a ‘next generation’ of fans and, specifically, young families
  • Be a distinct product from existing domestic cricket tournaments to ‘protect and support the future of the County game’

This year, Sports Shorts has already reported on new and ‘innovative’ tournament formats in athletics and golf each of which seek to achieve similar aims to that of the ECB’s new Twenty20 event.  With a finite number of sports fans available to sports within the UK and wider global markets, the commercial income from Test cricket (currently the main source of income for the ECB) reportedly under threat, and a decreasing public interest in the traditional (but sometimes prolonged) form of the game, it is legitimate to ask: does the new Twenty20 tournament have any chance of realising its aims?

Working in its favour is that the ECB has clearly done its homework. The proposal is the outcome of an 18 month consultation with various stakeholders that included 10,000 interviews and ‘significant focus group research’ to meet the agreed aims of ensuring ‘growth and securing our future…’ The inclusive and discursive process appears to have been well received: on the evening of 27 March 2017, the ECB claimed that all 18 First Class Counties together with MCC had signed deeds allowing the governing body to sell the media rights to the new tournament on their behalf. Further, the ECB has recognised the threat the new tournament poses to traditional county cricket and, instead of isolating those bodies, has proposed a tournament format that will benefit the counties financially (each of the counties will be shareholders in the new tournament and the income is to be ring-fenced).  Finally, it is thought that the new tournament format would not be captured by the ECB’s agreement with current broadcaster Sky thus paving the way for the ECB to consider competitive bids from rival broadcaster BT Sport and to reserve packages for terrestrial broadcasters. If true, a successful domestic Twenty20 tournament could radically alter the finances of the ECB and its counties.

Working against the ECB is the fact that it already has a domestic Twenty20 event that has struggled to match the commercial success and/or achieve the popularity of its international rivals such as India’s IPL and Australia’s Big Bash. By way of example, in 2016 average attendance at Big Bash matches was at 28,346 (a rise of 22% from 2015 records) with TV audiences averaging at 1 million per match; by contrast the English counties have laboured (often to no avail) to sell out their existing matches for the Natwest Big Blast (ranging from sell outs at Somerset and Worcestershire to only 24 and 27 per cent of tickets being sold at Durham and Hampshire respectively).  As a result, those counties are not excited by the prospect of a new Twenty20 tournament but, rather, are…waiting for the battle for county survival to begin’.

As with many of these proposals, only time will tell as to whether the ECB will realise its dream of first, creating a new Twenty20 tournament, and second, turning that tournament into a commercially lucrative Twenty20 domestic product. One question that must be is answered is whether the successful growth of a city based Twenty20 tournament (even if that success is extraordinary) can ever reverse the current decline of county cricket.  In this author’s opinion, that reversal will not happen organically and would require intelligent reinvestment from county cricket of the funds received as shareholders through (together with targeted marketing of any new fans generated by) the new Twenty20 event.

Notwithstanding, the general media coverage that this announcement has attracted (late on 27 March 2017 both BBC5Live and the BBC News programmes featured breaking news commentary on the proposals) suggest that there may be sufficient public interest to, at the very least, trial the new format. On the assumption that the proposal is approved, this author would also be very interested to hear the player’s thoughts on an additional tournament being added to their increasingly packed playing schedules. While the ECB, the counties and the fans’ opinions are undoubtedly important, without players, the ECB would have no product to sell to the broadcasters.