Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The unstoppable force of franchise T20

Tuesday, 28 March 2017
So the time has come. After months, years even, of deliberation and talk, the ECB’s proposed new T20 tournament is set to get its green light. The day was always coming, the ECB determined to push through their plan – and the promise/bribe of £1.3 million a year to each county that said yes was always too much to say no to. The ECB hype machine has been out in full force, but no amount of buzz can hide that so many – much like myself – have significant reservations about a new competition that takes a big gamble with the game’s future. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the questions that need to be answered, but they are some that spring immediately to mind:

What about the existing fans?

Of course I’m all for the game reaching out and finding new fans, I love this sport and want always want there to be more people watching it, playing it, enjoying it in the way that I do. But whilst they’re gambling on a new competition to attract a new audience, they still need to make sure not to alienate the existing one they have. County cricket might not have the biggest crowds, might not have the 'glamour' the ECB are after, but there are still lots and lots of dedicated fans of the game – can they get behind these new teams without that same sense of identity, that emotional attachment that they have for their county? Will the teams be named after cities, already an alienating idea for many? Will people care in the same way? And will the competition be enough to attract a new audience anyway?

What does this mean for the other competitions?

The cricket calendar is already packed, and this competition is taking place in addition to the existing three tournaments – most notably the T20 Blast, a competition unloved by the ECB but where attendances have grown year on year. The 50 over cup is likely to be running at the same time, as are test matches (also meaning a lack of red-ball practice for any players called up to the test team). It’s all a lot to fit in. And what does it mean for the county structure, more generally? Though the franchises will be ECB owned, if the bigger grounds host more matches surely they then stand to gain more if the competition is a success. Will ‘smaller’ counties just be pushed to the side again?

What about television?

The question of free-to-air television is one of the most frequent debates to pop up in English cricket ever since it went behind a paywall at the end of 2005. The T20 Blast hasn’t been well suited to television coverage, with the pot luck element that comes with choosing a single match to broadcast on a night when many games are played. The plan is for all games to be televised, with 8 of 36 to appear on free-to-air television – which is a must if it really is to reach a broader audience than before. But 8 out of 36 isn’t a lot, and will make it difficult to provide context to the few games they do show. And of course there’s no guarantee that putting it there will actually make people watch it, a reason in itself that broadcasters are reluctant to put up the cash – though it will definitely make for a greater potential audience than before.

The oversaturation of T20 cricket

You’ll have this one, the T20 Blast, a myriad of franchise T20 competitions around the world…it’s all a lot to absorb. Is the demand really there for another competition, or for two in the same country? How are the counties going to market the T20 Blast alongside the new competition, especially those whose grounds will be playing host for more than one team? Would it not have been easier to adjust the T20 Blast, a competition that has already proved popular, provides good cricket, and has an existing fanbase? The T20 Blast isn’t flawless, so maybe they could have looked at how to make it better and more palatable for spectators rather than going straight ahead with a new tournament outright – maybe divisions with promotion and relegation, or some way to streamline it so there aren’t so many ‘dead’ games once a team can’t qualify for the knockouts.

In England the effects of saturated periods of T20 cricket have been seen before, and was one of the reasons why the Blast became a weekly, Friday night competition. It’s part of that balance between the cricketing side and the marketing side – playing T20 in a bloc, rather than the constant switching between formats, makes better sense from a cricketing standpoint; but has also been harder to sell, with the saturation of all these games coming close together. There is a demand for a domestic T20 competition, but I’m not sure how much demand there is for two.

And so...

Who knows if the competition will be a success: even the ECB, it would appear, can’t be sure. Certainly it seems like a big gamble to take, one where it feels the consequences haven’t been well considered, but still the ECB are determined to plough on and remove any obstacles in their way. It feels more like the ECB missed the boat for these competitions a long time ago, and are just frantically paddling to catch up, staring enviously at the BBL and the IPL as they do. Even this competition is a long way off, not set to start until 2020 – by this point the IPL will have been going for well over 10 years, the BBL nearly 10. I’m not rooting for it to fail, I want to watch a good competition and I always want cricket to be a success – but at the moment I’m not seeing how these issues are being resolved. With three years to go before the tournament begins, hopefully we will see some answers.


  1. OK the target audience for the new competition isn't a current supporter / member of any county, but for the competition to succeed in the short term it will need to attract existing cricket fans. The problems for supporters is who to support? The team that plays at your county's venue or for whichever team your favourite players have been drafted to. Not caring for one side over another doesn't work in this highly parochial partisan country, it makes us who we are and adds that necessary edge to games, that make it all meaningful. Anything else is just "beer games" or in the case of this new competition "fizzy pop games".

    1. Exactly! You still need to entice existing fans of the game, but when you already have an emotional attachment to a team it won't be the same - even if it is in the same place, there won't be that lure of history and shared identity which for me is one of the things that makes county cricket, and team sport in general, what it is.

  2. Very much agree. On the saturation point, the IPL showed a drop off in support in 2016, with Test Cricket and 50 over this Indian season recovering crowd wise. This partly due to India doing well, and will be interesting to see crowd numbers for 2017 IPL, but T20 growing forever is not a certainty.

    1. Good point as well. I find that with the sheer number of T20 leagues around the world right now, eventually you get to a point where you're just watching the same players line up again and again. It's hard to keep track of, for one thing.


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