Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, has defended the introduction of a new T20 tournament, slated to get underway in 2020, by insisting that the concept will “future-proof” the game in England and Wales.
Harrison also stated he would like “as much cricket as possible” to be broadcast free to air, and insisted that a key aim of the new competition would be to underpin the future of Test cricket.
Speaking in between presentations with all members of the ECB – the first-class counties, the MCC and representatives from the recreational game – Harrison confirmed the organisational details of the new competition, as published by ESPNcricinfo earlier this month – and expressed his confidence that he will receive a mandate to progress plans for the tournament within the next few weeks.
To further those plans, the ECB’s executive board will meet on Tuesday to agree a ground-breaking amendment to the constitution of the ECB that will allow them, for the first time, to run a competition that excludes some of the 18 first-class counties. After that, a letter will be sent to all 41 members of the ECB (the 18 first-class counties, the MCC, the 21 recreational boards and the Minor Counties Cricket Association) asking them to approve those constitutional changes. The ECB requires 31 positive responses within 28 days of the date on the letter for the changes to be passed. A non-response is effectively a no-vote.
Realistically, it is most unlikely that the ECB’s plans will be derailed at this stage. All 18 counties and the MCC have now signed media deeds assigning their broadcast rights to the ECB – the final county signed a couple of days ago – after the ECB threatened to withhold funding (£1.3m per county per year for five years, starting in 2020) if they delayed further.
Several counties are deeply unhappy – one complained of being “co-coerced” while another stated that “Devon and Dorset are telling the Test grounds how to run their business” – but those grumbles are now likely to remain below the surface. Depending on your point of view, the non-first-class counties have been won over by the ECB’s plans, or won over by the ECB’s offers of extra money.
One or two concessions have been won by recalcitrant counties. The ECB have confirmed that the change to the constitution will apply only to the new-team T20 competition – meaning all three existing competitions will continue to feature 18 teams – and they have confirmed that are aiming for eight of the 36 games in the new-team competition to be broadcast free to air. After what will have been a decade-and-a-half behind a paywall, that might yet prove to be the most significant development of all.
Most of all, though, Harrison sought to explain the motivation behind the advent of the new competition. Accompanied by England’s limited-overs captain, Eoin Morgan, who attended the meetings to add his support, he drew on research that suggests that the imprisoned spend more time outside than many of today’s children in the UK, and that only two percent of British kids list cricket as their favourite sport. In short: cricket needs to act if it is to remain relevant.
“It is very clear we are not currently talking to as big an audience as we should be, because our tournaments are not as relevant as they should be,” Harrison said from the Royal Institute of British Architects, where the meetings were held as the offices at Lord’s are currently being refurbished. “We have to think differently if we’re going to be successful at attracting family audiences to our competitions. We need to change our thinking on that to be relevant to a new generation that responds to big box-office occasions.
“This is about creating something different. If we’re successful at that, we’ll be successful at boosting our existing tournaments as well as creating something dramatically different for English cricket and for a thriving new audience for English cricket.”
Arguing that plans to play the new-team competition at the same time as the 50-over competition and Test cricket did not risk “cannibalising” the existing audience, Harrison insisted that the aim was to find an entirely new and different audience for the game.
“We don’t see the audiences for Test cricket being impacted by the new T20 competition,” he said. “We’ve done an awful lot of work in understanding our county championship audience, our Blast audience, our 50-over audience. What this is designed to do is complement that with a whole new audience that we’re currently not talking to.
“This is about growth. This is a fantastic opportunity for us to create something that appeals to an entirely new audience, grows cricket’s overall audience, and enable us to control something that has real value for the long term.”
Key to that will be the ECB’s ability to strike a better balance between subscription and free-to-air broadcasting. While Harrison can make no guarantees – it is, after all, up to the broadcasters to decide what they show – he confirmed that discussions with free-to-air providers were positive and on-going.
“In an ideal world, I’d like to maximise revenue and reach,” he said. “I would love to have as much cricket as we could [on free to air]. But we’re a pay-TV business. We’re underwritten by pay TV. Right now, there aren’t too many alternatives to that, so we have to be smart about how we package and work with our commercial partners to make sure we get that balance right between reach and revenue.
“We’ve a great opportunity. There’s a desire from free-to-air to partner with us on new T20. They’re excited about where we’re taking the game. These are not conversations you can have if you’re not presenting something very clear, very exciting and very different to the market. So we’re in a very strong place.”
Defending the accusation that the 50-over tournament would be diminished by being played in the shadow of the new T20 competition, Harrison said: “The 50-over tournament will be where county members can see young players coming through. It will give young players a chance to showcase their abilities earlier in their career than they would otherwise get. There’s reason to be very cheerful about the 50-over tournament.”
In theory, it is just about possible that individual counties could lobby their chairmen and chief executives over the next couple of weeks and demand they reject the constitutional amendment. Realistically, though, from the moment the counties voted to pursue the new-team competition as their only option from 2020 onwards this was an inevitable outcome.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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