England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) CEO, Tom Harrison, and director of England women's cricket, Clare Connor, have backed the sport to grow both commercially and via participation over the next few years, as new formats and distribution channels continue to expand.
Harrison and Connor also discussed the recent fallout of Ben Stokes, building on momentum from the summer’s Women’s World Cup success, the challenges of the current commercial climate, and utilising the recent television deal that will see the sport return to free-to-air from 2020.
Speaking at The BT Centre in front of senior industry figures, moderator James Pearce began with a question about England all-rounder Ben Stokes. Harrison explained: “What happened was wrong, you don’t want to see your sport in that position and there are consequences to that. We are in a holding pattern at the moment, with a process for the police as well as an internal disciplinary process.
“I think cricket’s response to this will show the values of the game in its best light. Going through a difficult moment, we’ll see the best of cricket come out and we are blessed with a team of outstanding ambassadors across the men’s and women’s game, and this is very much an isolated incident.”
With integrity increasingly under the microscope in sport governance, the leadership duo insisted it was a crucial priority for them and the sport moving forward.
“Good governance underpins everything,” said Harrison. “It defines how and why you make decisions – good structures and good people will mean good decisions, and bad structures and bad people will mean bad decisions. Our current reforms, which we’re right in the middle of, will define everything we are trying to do around diversity, inclusion, relevance to the next generation, and the messages we send to the game. That’s what governance means to us.
“It’s about process, and making sure they are robust enough to ensure people can feel secure and safe and be heard if there is a problem. We are constantly reviewing our processes in this space. This integrity agenda is something we are taking clear and direct action on – from introducing new roles to expanding existing ones – it’s an area that requires constant vigilance and is no place for complacency.”
As the men’s side continue plans for the upcoming Ashes series without their all-rounder Ben Stokes, the women’s team are already underway as they prepare for their day/night Women's Ashes Test, which starts in Sydney from Thursday.
After confirming a new rights deal in June bringing an additional £1.1bn over five years into the game, including a return to the BBC, Connor stressed the importance of building on the increase in exposure.
“The most important thing is that the sport means as much as possible, to as many people as possible,” said Connor. “So free-to-air will give us access to a different type of conversation. Particularly with women’s cricket, it will go a huge way to normalising the women’s game.
“I should also say that Sky has given an amazing commitment to women’s cricket in the last few years, going far above and beyond what they were contractually obliged to do. The Women’s World Cup final on the channel was the most watched cricket game of the last year – men’s or women’s – so it shows that the interest is there.”
Connor also sees England’s success at the record-breaking Women’s Cricket World Cup this summer as crucial to growth of the game: “We’re still revelling in an amazing day for the squad, the families and the 25,000 people that came to watch. Viewing figures of over 180 million around the world, and it’s down to us now to ensure it’s the game-changer that it should be, and that the fans that saw that game come back.”
Harrison added: “There was a completely different audience that day (for the final). It gave us absolute clarity that if we were prepared to do things differently, target an audience in a genuine way, and disrupt to that level, we will be successful in getting a new audience into cricket grounds. It was the most disruptive day certainly in my tenure, and a brilliant day for so many reasons. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Harrison warned against the temptation to grab at short-term money at the detriment of long-term broadcast and commercial partnerships.
“When you’re going to market, the key thing to remember is don’t think about the deal you’re doing now, think about the deal you’re going to do next time you go to market,” said Harrison.
“Think about how the seeds you are planting now are helping the sport you are selling long-term. We take long-term growth very seriously, and it’s far more important than getting upset by the short-term.
“We can also move forward with confidence knowing that we are not on our own when it comes to participation and relevance. We’re tackling these challenges alongside the power and scale of the BBC and with Sky.”
“As well as the Women’s World Cup we also had the ICC Champions Trophy, and 60% of people who bought tickets for that event have never bought tickets to cricket in the UK before. Obviously it helps having eight of the best teams in the world in town, but we’re only 18 months away from hosting another World Cup, so there is another massive opportunity to continue momentum.”
Regarding brands, the ECB CEO added: “It’s a tricky market, and there is so much choice for brands at the moment. Yes there’s pressure on sponsorship revenue, but we’re super confident that we will make smart decisions about who we partner with, which delivers authenticity and long-term partnerships. We’re very clear about what we offer, and we target brands accordingly.
“In our Twenty20 discussions, we’re not ready to for the sponsorship discussion yet, we’re fighting people off! The phone is ringing with brands who have never thought about cricket before in the way they are thinking about the new T20. Once we’ve got that proposition defined we’ll be in a very strong place to get the right kind of partnership for that competition.”
The conversation then moved to converting fans to playing, Connor said: “We launched women’s softball cricket festivals this summer, which got 6,000 new women and girls playing the sport for the first time. It’s more normal now, and that gives us great optimism for the future of the game. Girls are having a much richer, more inclusive experience in our sport now.”
Harrison added: “By looking at every decision we make through the prism of participation we are changing the mindsets internally, but also through the game, about how important participation is – it’s a huge change from 15 years ago. We launched an entry level programme, All Stars Cricket, in May for five to eight-year-olds. That’s not just a participation strategy, but a growth strategy in context of our new T20 competition. It’s about disrupting participation and changing the mindset of what participation in cricket means.”
Following the International Cricket Council’s approval of an array of new changes and formats to the global game last month, including a structured Test match world championship, an ODI league and the trial of four-day Test matches, Connor expressed excitement about the possibilities moving forward.
Looking ahead to the future of the sport, Connor said: “With the pace of modern life and pressure on time, we’ll certainly see more of the shorter formats playing a role. The World Cup has given us confidence for the 50-over format, but I think it is Twenty20 that is going to grow the game for girls, both in participation and commercially. It does leave Test cricket a little more uncertain, but these are really interesting times as we make decisions on how we sell the game to new audiences moving forward.”
Harrison added that the protection of Test cricket was a priority for the ECB, adding: “Test cricket is the format we value the most and we’re doing everything we can to contextualise it. There should be far more optimism around the future of Test cricket than there currently is. The recent developments, such as the day/night game, have been very successful and there is no agenda to dumb down Test cricket’s role in the game. Quite the opposite. It needs to be nurtured, marketed properly and potentially less is more for the future of Test cricket.”
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