Doom-mongers have been predicting the death of county cricket almost since it was first established. However, its willingness to re-invent itself every generation has kept it a key part of the English (and Welsh!) summer. After a period of declining crowds, the introduction of twenty-twenty cricket in 2003 re-established county cricket as a mass spectator sport. Fourteen years later it continues to thrive and grow. The T20 Blast competition recorded record attendances in 2017.
Many commentators see the buzz around the 2017 county competition as a reaction by fans against plans by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to stage a new twenty-twenty competition from 2020, based around 8 regional teams. The ECB wants to fill the big grounds with a new audience for cricket. It hopes to emulate the mass popularity of such competitions in Indian and Australia. It’s a risky strategy. The whole culture of cricket support is totally different in those countries. Can you create an audience for contrived regional teams? How can you replace a sold-out Old Trafford for the roses clash? Will the crowd which fills Lords for Middlesex vs Surrey really show up for ‘North London’ vs ‘South London’?
The new competition will not replace the county-based T20 Blast though. Whilst the new competition will be played in August, the T20 Blast will be played first, from June to mid-July, a much better slot in terms of the weather and the lack of competition from football. Is there a sufficient audience for both? Which will fare better?
Given the record crowds in 2017, the ECB would be well advised to revisit its plans for a regional competition. A less risky approach would be to build on the success of the Blast. So much could be done. Learn the lessons from counties like Surrey, Middlesex, Somerset and Nottinghamshire who attract capacity, enthusiastic crowds. How do they market their games? Play no international cricket whilst the Blast is on. Allow the England players to play alongside the world’s best stars, especially the biggest stars from the sub-continent. Play some games on smaller grounds where locals rarely get the chance to see top quality cricket. Above all, get the game on terrestrial TV. The ECB’s decision to sell all rights to domestic and international cricket to satellite TV was short-sighted, robing it of a huge audience and its status as our national summer sport. Put the promotion and marketing into the Blast. It’s already a great competition. Some imagination, some proper planning and marketing could make it truly huge.