Gloucestershire, Somerset and Worcestershire
In a recent interview with The Times, Colin Graves repeated his view that he wants to see a thriving 18-county system, mentioning that the proposed new competition from 2020 would mean an additional £1.3mn for each county, with a minimum of £3.5mn per year. The ECB’s accounts for the last year refer to ‘significantly increased’ broadcast revenues from 2020 and however much that might actually turn out to be in £mn, it will be enough, according to those at the top of the game, to future-proof the county circuit as well as fund the new competition.
It is not too difficult to see why the sums mentioned might sway a majority, if not all, of the game’s business minds. All three counties here are substantially funded by the ECB revenues that are shared out across the game; for Worcestershire, for example, over 60% of its income in the last decade has come from ECB funds.
Pooling revenues has a long history in cricket (as with other sport) on the grounds that it makes for more competitive matches, and whether the county game is viewed in its own right, or simply as a proving ground for Test cricket, or something of both, the general rationale for this is solid enough.
What this leaves open is quite how much? Over most of the ECB era the total amounts distributed to the counties from the centre have, broadly speaking, flat-lined and the experience of the three here plainly fits into this overall pattern. The amounts in £mn shared out to the individual counties, though not equal, are quite similar.
A large jump in the minimum raises the question why it would make the counties here more sustainable? In 2016 they had (loan) debts in the region of £3-£5m, made interest payments of the order of 3-5% of their income, and generally have had salary spends on cricketers that has allowed them to compete with the county teams from the major TMGs.
The combination of relatively equal shares from the ECB pool, and centrally controlled playing spends has, it could be said, been on the side of the smaller counties from a sustainability point of view. Where large extra revenues might go, if large extra revenues there be, given that all are recipients, is fundamental and also problematic.
The (2016) membership totals in the chart below are also striking, particularly at Taunton where the numbers are greater than at Cardiff, Edgbaston and Old Trafford. The similarity between those for Worcestershire and Warwickshire is also noticeable. As a % of their respective county populations, Somerset are ahead of the TMGs, way ahead of three of them.
Also apparent is the variation between the TMGs, about twice the numbers at Trent Bridge, where historically membership has risen, as there are at Edgbaston. There has been a decline and in recent years recovery at Headingley, and a more or less unchecked historical decline at Old Trafford, since numbers of nearly 14,000 in 1997. As for sustaining a new audience, playing at venues where there is experience of keeping an existing one might be thought helpful.
By comparison with football, which in the past certainly had its problems in the aftermath of the collapse of the ITV-Digital contract, but where most of the time this century the revenue numbers from TV have been heading north, it is arguable that cricket has had a more difficult, maybe much more difficult, time over the years.
The much criticised decision to take Test cricket behind a paywall after 2005 was justified by the ECB by the need to maintain its revenues. Channel 4, it seems fair to say, were not in a position to repeat its previous contract, and the decision to ‘take the money’ has at least produced a time when the distributions to the counties have been sustained; which is not to diminish the problems from the decision.
When aiming for sustainability the question that comes with a good contract is what happens if it is then followed by a less good one?The general, systemic, risk to the smaller and mid-size counties, but really the county game as a whole, from big increases in central funding from 2020 is to whom would the ECB and the game turn, if there was a decline in 2024?