After England's victory over South Africa in the second Test of the series, James Fenn of H+K Strategies asks if brands are the answer to the debate raging over cricket's five-day tests.
Ben Stokes and England are at it again. Cape Town is a world away from Headingly, but on another afternoon bathed in sunlight and tension in equal measure, England’s all-rounder once again put forward his case to be this country’s most inspiring and electric athlete.
Despite taking place on the other side of the world and in the middle of a working day, it still felt like one of 2020’s first powerful sporting moments. The BBC Sport live page had more than 1.7 million unique users and the BBC radio show ‘the Cricket Social’ (not even the live commentary) had 266 thousand stream starts, 127k more than any other programme.
As with every cricketing moment of significance, the conversation has quickly moved to what it could mean for the sport. A debate centred on the very future of the five-day game.
There has been a growing sentiment that Test matches should move to four days, to reduce the strain on players and costs for governing bodies. Cricket South Africa has said it’s “official policy is to support four-day tests”. During the run-up to the game ex-England fast bowler Steve Harmison said he supports the idea.
With the dramatic conclusion at Newlands taking place just 8.2 overs before the end, this was a phenomenal advert for five-day Test cricket. A point made by multitude of pundits and almost every player interviewed after the game. The rush is now on to underline that of course, we must protect the sanctity of five-day matches, and the drama we saw in Cape Town.
My initial reaction is to completely agree. There is nothing quite like the intensity of five days of mental and physical examination that these games bring. It makes feats like Ben Stokes, bowling 90mph in the dying embers of his fifth straight day of competing, so spectacular. Cricket also has a rich history including years of statistics identifying who the best of the best were. To change the dynamics of the game so completely, makes it incredibly hard to put the feats of today’s players in historical context, something innately important about cricket (just ask all the collectors of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack).
However, I was struck in the debate following the game by these comments by cricket writer Nick Hoult. They make a compelling point about why nations are considering four-day Tests. Hosting Test cricket is incredibly expensive, and while in England matches draw impressive crowds, that is not the case elsewhere. Played in big stadiums made for broadcast, the stands are often sparsely populated, especially during the working week. This puts a significant burden on local governing bodies, who often aren’t flush with cash to begin with.
The cricket was a great advert for five day Tests. Take out the England fans though and the crowd would have been small on a working day. That is why four day Tests are being discussed. We only look at it through English eyes and see no problem. Not the case elsewhere— Nick Hoult (@NHoultCricket) January 7, 2020
The point made by Hoult is that cricket’s big three (England, Australia and India), who are in a stronger financial position, should share more revenue with struggling nations to protect the five-day game. It’s a fair thought, but you can see why it’s also a tough sell. Many people involved in grassroots cricket would argue that money should be going to support the future of the game in this country.
Some would argue that it is a matter of prioritisation, that instead of investing in shorter formats, like The Hundred, governing bodies like the ECB should focus more on the longest form of the game. But whatever you think about The Hundred, you can’t fault its purpose – to introduce new audiences to cricket. Like all sports, cricket needs to grow to survive.
So maybe it is time we look to other sources to secure the future of five-day cricket around the world?
The role of brands in our society has changed. Consumers now expect brands to be an active participant in creating a better society. As a result, many now have a far greater voice on social issues, and some have even started acting almost as extensions of governments or NGOs. So how could brands support Test cricket’s five-day problem? Cricket has some great sponsors, but could they go further?
One of the most onerous costs for host nations is facilitating the broadcast. Hoult suggests it costs £100k a day to broadcast the sport. If broadcast partners can’t do more to reduce this cost, could brands? Could a sponsor take on some of the cost of broadcast – and gain rights to broadcast exclusively through their social media channels?
Many FMCG brands are involved in the sport. Notably KP Snacks' very visible support of The Hundred. Could a brand like that manage all of the catering for a Test match, taking some of the burden off the hosts, in exchange for greater prominence for their product?
Big brands also have huge marketing machinery. Could they be the ones to take a greater role on marketing the event – as HSBC appears to be doing with World Rugby to evolve the World Rugby Sevens Series - or even taking responsibility for getting those bums on seats? It would be an increase in investment but would also bring with it exposure in terms of co-branded communications, so would be a valuable way to use some of that yearly advertising budget. Staffing, up-keep of the ground, entertainment. These are all costs that brands could help take on as part of their involvement with the sport.
Of course, the motivation for any of these measures wouldn’t be totally altruistic. Taking ownership of this additional explicit role in protecting the sport would come with a huge amount of goodwill and positive endorsement from the cricket community and the media. It could be a true win-win.
These ideas might seem like brands swimming outside their lane. An overreach for the role of a sponsor. But our expectations for brands are changing in every sector, so it makes sense for them to evolve in sponsorship as well.
Test cricket is a wonderful sporting spectacle. It is a beautiful relic of a time where depth of experience and challenge was more valuable than instant gratification. It deserves to be protected. Deeper partnership with more proactive brands might just be the answer.