Sustainable County Cricket

Somewhere the other side of  coronavirus, hopefully, there is a  English cricket season of sorts, however much truncated. Games  behind closed doors in June, streamed, with BBC commentary?  It would be good for the mental health of its listeners if there were. Matches with at least some spectators in attendance by  August? Maybe; but not to doubt that 2020 may turn out to be a season that wasn’t.

As to the capacity of cricket to survive a fallow year financially, the big numbers in the game, ECB revenues,  mainly broadcasting,  and those of the 18 first-class counties came to around £260mn in 2018 and were likely to have been well to the north of £300mn after last summer, which should have left some surpluses. The  ECB’s new TV contract from this year is ‘significantly’ bigger than before, and with help one way and another  from government, it conceivably might be  enough to get the domestic game to 2021.

Quite how long Sky will actually (be able to) fund cricket while showing repeats remains to be seen. But for those of us thinking a future with 18 first-class counties is a marker for the game’s presence, the sustainability  question, if anything, is likely to become more acute. Why struggle to keep a structure intact, critics will ask, if something is not really viable in any event?

Surprisingly maybe county cricket in the time of Sky has, in fact, returned a small profit. The impression from annual snapshots of its financial health in the past has sometimes been rather different, sometimes with reason, but cumulate the 18 financial bottom lines over the years and what you get is shown below.

Legacies and surpluses from ground developments are certainly part of what has sustained the smaller counties, and without the success story of Somerset the trend is close to break-even. Some, of course, have had better experiences than others, but the aggregated line for the non-TMGs, broadly, does not hide great variations within.

Bumpy times at the TMGs; the costs of major ground rebuilds, and expansion to nine when six meant one often missing out problematic, as might reasonably have  been expected. To an extent  this has now been rectified, a major debt write-off (Cardiff), a seriously big capital injection from the  local authority (Southampton/Eastleigh)  and a re-financing (Chester-le-Street) having steadied things.

But a clear and obvious message about speculative excess, the financially unsustainable; from which cue and queue the scepticism over The 100. If the game is about to borrow more against its future, repayment horizons that extend past the current risky TV contract will help. What cricket doesn’t need is more bumpy times of its own making to follow the current uncertain ones.

Charts for the individual counties and other financial details are on the stats page.