As the days get longer, English cricket edges closer to the start of what will be a huge summer, including both an Ashes series and a home ICC Cricket World Cup. It comes as the game embarks on a process of significant reform and innovation designed to keep pace with a changing fan and media landscape. In this exclusive piece for Sport Industry Group, Neil Hopkins, Global Head of Strategy, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, assesses the state of play and looks ahead to what could be a pivotal summer for the sport.
England is about to go completely and utterly cricket mad.
And it will most likely stay that way until late September.
With no World Cup, European Championship or Olympic Games to crowd it out of the public consciousness, English cricket’s biggest ever summer can take centre stage.
If the sport gets it right, you won’t help but notice.
After five, warm-up one day internationals, and a T20 International against Pakistan, England will help raise the curtain of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup on 30th May against South Africa at the Oval, the first time the tournament has taken place on home turf for twenty years.
Under normal circumstances, the World Cup alone would be the making of the summer, but 2019 offers an embarrassment of cricketing riches. No sooner will the dust have settled from the World Cup than the Australians will arrive to contest an Ashes series with the potential to be an even more volatile affair than normal.
Sandwiched in between the World Cup and the men’s Ashes, the reigning world champion England Women’s team will take on Australia in their multi-format version of the Ashes.
Perhaps most exciting is the fact that, since their abysmal performance in the last World Cup in 2015, England’s performances in white ball cricket have been a revelation. Now ranked number one in the world in the 50 over format, they are favourites to win the Cricket World Cup for the first time ever.
And if there is one thing that sparks the interest of sports fans in this country, it’s the chance that England might actually win something, regardless of the sport.
Some estimates suggest that the appeal of the sport could mushroom way beyond the 9-10m individuals the ECB identifies as followers of the sport. If the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and the London 2012 Olympics taught us anything it is not to underestimate the immense interest the British public has in major international sporting events.
But making hay while the sun shines is the easy bit.
The challenge the ECB and the game as a whole face, is sustaining this interest.
We’ve been here before.
The 2005 Ashes, where TV audiences for Channel 4’s live coverage passed 8 million, was perhaps the last occasion when cricket truly grabbed hold of the national discourse, a high watermark for a sport about to undergo dramatic change.
By the next home Ashes in 2009, an all-encompassing broadcast deal with Sky was into its fourth season and, while the coverage was more innovative and engaging than ever, the audience for England’s series-clinching final day victory was a mere 2 million.
For all of Sky’s huge investment, which has undoubtedly helped England scale new heights in terms of professionalism and performance, cricket has rarely been able to nudge its way onto the front pages since and, across the same period, the grassroots game has suffered.
Arguments of cause and effect will continue to rage as to the interrelationship between participation, elite performance and broadcast coverage.
What is no longer in doubt however is that nowadays there is simply no terrestrial broadcaster able (or inclined) to allocate eight-hour slabs of scheduling to screen test cricket.
To its credit, the ECB recognises this and its answer has been to unveil The Hundred, a new format that takes its cues from T20 yet deliberately eschews many of the games fundamentals, most obviously the concept of the over.
Now, it would be misleading to suggest that The Hundred has been universally well-received but, as a broadcast-friendly format designed to hook the most casual of sports consumers, it may well point the way forward for sports beyond cricket as they seek to combat the football’s domination of the airwaves.
The three existing formats clearly serve very distinct demographics, albeit with substantial overlap, but the ECB is pinning its hopes on The Hundred being able to reach beyond those vertical audiences and engage with generation z and its younger sibling, generation alpha.
The challenge is that not only are these audiences more likely to watch YouTube than they are terrestrial or subscription TV services, the amount of time they spend engaged with a particular sporting format is decreasing at an alarming rate.
Can the simplified format of The Hundred play meet this challenge? Will it lend itself to the snackable, highlights-focused content this audience consumes?
It’s impossible to say with any certainty because English cricket, for all its venerable traditions and conservative veneer, is actually taking a leap of faith no sport has had the, er, balls to do before.
For all the talk of new formats being the solution to engaging broadcasters with limited schedules or consumers with limited attention spans across all manner of sports, it is cricket that has taken the plunge.
While they might allow themselves a wry smile at the response The Hundred has received from within the game itself, governing bodies will be keeping a beady eye on how it performs as they weigh options for their own sports.
Of course, that is all for the future.
For now, let’s hope that cricket takes its rightful place in the sun and that England’s men and women can make it a golden one as, after all, nothing succeeds like success.