T20 Blast ticket sales hit new high – so why does competition feel unloved?
Aside from a few little matters, such as the decision to omit Kevin Pietersen; the sacking of England’s last head coach and the search to find his replacement; the sharp drop-off in the participation figures; the threat of the rebel league mooted by the Essel Group; and the bedding in of the new president, chairman and director of cricket; the annual general meeting of the England and Wales Cricket Board should be a straightforward affair. Somewhere in among all that, the conversation will turn, again, to the topic of what should be done with England’s competition.
Every Friday night between now and 24 July, there is going to be T20 cricket going on somewhere in the country, often featuring some of the finest players in the world. will be with Somerset, with Surrey, Tillakaratne Dilshan with Derbyshire, with Warwickshire, , . The list goes on. Advance ticket sales stretch to 157,000, a new high, and the ECB is anticipating that records will be set for the biggest overall attendance. Yorkshire v Lancashire on 5 June is already sold out, as are a couple of Somerset’s games. When they announced that Gayle had signed, the surge in demand was so great that their website crashed.
Yet, despite all that, the T20 Blast seems a little unloved. Not least by the itself, and in particular its new chairman, Colin Graves. During his spell as chairman-elect, which went on for an unhealthy amount of time, the future of the shortest form was one of many things Graves spoke out about. “T20 hasn’t been as successful as we’d hoped,” he told the BBC in February. He expanded on that in an earlier interview with the Telegraph. “We have something that works only so far and can be better. We have lost our way a bit in Twenty20. We have to look at that and other ways and means and ask if we can do a second T20 [competition].” When the boss feels that way about his own product, you wonder what his customers are meant to think.
Underpinning this dissatisfaction is the suspicion that while T20 was invented in England, it has been perfected elsewhere. Given the size of the domestic audience and the sums of money involved, India is a case apart, but the success of the Big Bash League in Australia has provoked envy in England. In 2014-15, BBL matches, played in far bigger grounds than most of those available in England, attracted an average of 23,539 spectators each. In 2014, the equivalent figure for the Blast was 5,772. More important still, half the people in those Australian crowds came as part of a family, a quarter of them were aged 16 or under, and one in 10 of them was attending their very first game of top-level cricket.
The BBL has two distinct advantages over the Blast. The first is its size. In England, 18 teams play 126 matches over 107 days. In Australia eight play 35 in 42. The BBL takes place within the span of the summer holidays, when parents are looking for ways to keep their kids busy. But the Blast goes on so long even its fans find it hard to keep track of what is happening, much less first-time viewers. Worse still, its length means that overseas players are seldom able to commit to anything other than a short spell in a side. So, for instance, fans have no guarantee that if they go to watch Somerset they will get to see Gayle. And finally, the matches have to fit in between the County Championship, which means players and fans are always chopping and changing between formats.
The second major difference is that the BBL is available free to air on Channel Ten, where matches drew an average audience of 900,000 viewers, and the final a peak figure of 1.89m. Hidden behind Sky’s paywall, the final of the Blast in 2014 managed a figure of 360,000, which was a third again as many as the most popular group match. What the ECB would give for such exposure. It says terrestrial TV is not interested in what it has to sell. But then, perhaps the price isn’t right.
Neither of these things is going to be easy to change. A smaller franchise competition would require the counties to be willing to pool their players and resources. Some counties are reluctant, fearing the move would either make them irrelevant or put them out of business altogether. But others, such as Derbyshire’s chairman, Chris Grant, are coming around to an idea, their thinking sharpened by the threat of Essel’s rebel league.
In a clear sign of its new designs, the ECB has just hired Mike Fordham from IMG, who worked on the launch of both the IPL and the Caribbean Premier League. Reports suggest that the ECB is planning to launch a new T20 competition in 2017, just 14 years after it invented the format.