Cricket

Why The Hundred is helping to secure the future of county cricket

Some doom mongers warned The Hundred would be the death of county cricket.

But Lancashire chief executive Daniel Gidney believes the ECB’s new showcase competition has helped do the exact opposite.

Critics were lining up to slam the competition even before it had started, believing it was a ‘dumbing down’ of the game which would struggle to attract crowds to watch new ‘made up teams’.

And there are those now saying England’s current batting woes at Test level are down to The Hundred, even though they date back to well before the tournament began.

Now, as we approach the end of the group stage, even the harshest of critics would find it hard not to agree the competition has done what it set out to do – bring extra revenue into the game, raise cricket’s profile and reach a new, family orientated audience.

Crowds have been good, helped by some tight games early on between teams packed with England stars and overseas big-hitters given a spotlight on primetime terrestrial TV.

Social media presence – crucial in this day and age in the search for a young audience – has been influential.

The women’s game is finally getting the recognition and coverage it deserves.

And the bond between fans and the teams has been evident from day one, highlighted by the fact Lancashire’s Liam Livingstone was booed as he walked out to bat for Birmingham Phoenix at Emirates Old Trafford.

Sure, there are things that can be improved. The fact England’s Test players, such as Manchester’s Jos Buttler, only played two games before the India series started needs to be looked at.

And the crowded cricket calendar, which saw no first-class cricket being players in the lead up to the major Test series of the summer, has to be addressed.

But as a tournament, The Hundred looks to be here to stay. And that is a good thing says Gidney.

“It has been better than I thought,” he told M.E.N. Sport. “I’ve said before we shouldn’t give the ECB too much of a hard time in the first year of the competition – it is very difficult to turn ticket sales over for a new competition, especially with the situation we have all been dealing with in terms of Covid.

But to get to where we have been getting to – with 13,000 tickets sold for the second game here at Emirates Old Trafford which was unfortunately rained off – is great.

“In 2019 we broke our non-Roses Blast record of 15,000 three times in one season. So that is our high water mark. So to get to around 13,000 for The Hundred in the first season is really impressive.

“It is a much more family-orientated crowd. To get the crowds we have been getting from a standing start, and crowds who are engaged and enjoying themselves, you have to say it has been a success.

“The tournament has clearly captured the imagination of some fans who we haven’t quite considered, to be fair.”

As a host venue, Lancashire receive a staging fee from the ECB, money from the sale of food, drink and hospitality at every home game and 30 per cent of the ticket sales revenue for matches at Emirates Old Trafford.

But the biggest boost to the coffers is the £1.3m each of the 18 counties receive from the broadcast deal for The Hundred.

“There is a lot of negativity out there. But I know there are some counties who wouldn’t survive without that money,” said Gidney.

“That money is only available because The Hundred exists in the format it is now, with just eight teams.

“There are some people who are concerned The Hundred may be the death of county cricket. As long as I am in the game, there won’t be a threat to 18 counties.

“It is down to us as custodians of the game to make sure the 18 county game is supported and continues. A threat to Northants or Leicestershire or Somerset is exactly the same as a threat to Lancashire.

“The Hundred is an initiative to bring more people into cricket who wouldn’t have had an interest in the game.

“We have to understand that although loads of people love cricket, there are loads more who don’t yet have that joy. Part of The Hundred is to bring those people to the game, and that’s a good thing.

It is important to understand a way of underpinning the game is broadcast revenues, The Hundred is a way of doing that and attracting more people to the game. It is down to the 18 counties then to protect and support their products.”

The T20 Blast – county cricket’s money-spinner – has grown in popularity over the years with crowds on the rise. This year, it was hampered by Covid restrictions, which meant capacity was much reduced at most grounds, something The Hundred has not had to deal with since ‘Freedom Day’.

And it will be interesting next season to see if the hunger for The Hundred is still there after six weeks of Blast matches, or whether the Blast will suffer.

“The Blast is loved, it is a unique competition. Any one of 18 counties can win that tournament each year,” said Gidney. “It is proven to be loved, it is proven to be successful. Overall, in 2019 a million people bought tickets for the Blast nationwide.

“The Blast is not an alternative to The Hundred, it is something that should be celebrated in its own right. It is part of the cricket mix.

“You will get some people who will come to both, some who only come to the Blast and some who will only come to The Hundred.

“In the Blast you get seven home games in a fairly short period of time, so most people generally won’t come to all of those. There is a lot of competition for the leisure pound and people lead busy lives. But we have shown we now have a lot of people coming to just one or two Blast games.

Having done 95,000 ticket sales in 2019 for the Blast, we think we could get to around 120,000 for the 11 Blast and Hundred games combined. So we may drop to around 80,000 in the Blast and get 40,000 for The Hundred.

“But having 120,000 people watching short-form cricket at Emirates Old Trafford is better than having 95,000. So I am growing my base.

“The Blast is Lancashire cricket through and through, and we have significant plans to grow that still.

“The Roses match between Lancashire and Yorkshire is iconic, it is the only game outside of Surrey v Middlesex that sells out in the Blast and we are very proud of that.

“Without being funny, Manchester Originals and the Northern Superchargers does not have that same history so will never be the same, and that is a huge asset for Lancashire.

“The Blast is a different product, it is Lancashire cricket, it is unique. You have a lot of people who say we shouldn’t have started The Hundred because we already have the Blast.

“When The Hundred was first conceived, the ECB wanted to find a way to generate more broadcast revenue. With the hard work of Tom Harrison at the ECB, we now have the best broadcast deal the game has ever had and will ever have.

We have the competitive tension just right between Sky and BT Sport. He could have got more money for The Hundred, but crucially he got some free-to-air coverage in there too. I think he got the balance right.

“People ask ‘why couldn’t he have done that with the Blast?’

“For a broadcaster to pay that kind of premium for a tournament, a Blast which has 145 games is too long. It takes too long. Broadcasters weren’t going to pay a premium for an 18 county tournament that went on for 145 games.

“The Hundred means there is £1.3m additional broadcast revenue which goes to each of the 18 counties.”

The ECB have been keen to make The Hundred accessible to all by making it as simple a game as possible. Overs have been replaced by five or 10-ball spells, scoreboards have been scaled down, and there is a strong emphasis on avoiding the jargon which sometimes makes the game difficult for newcomers to understand.

“There is a lot of irrational hatred around the format of The Hundred,” added Gidney. “I can’t understand it. If you are trying to encourage someone new to the game, the jargon can put you off very easily.

“I get traditionalists saying it is dumbing down. But if you don’t like it, you don’t have to come.

It is about respecting and recognising different people liking different things. When T20 first came in in 2003, people were using worse language than dumbing down, some people really did hate it.

“You look now, and without doubt T20 has improved red ball skills. As long as skills are improving and as long as you give people a choice in the type of cricket they want to consume, I don’t understand why having something like this which generates more money and more people into the game, and a younger and more diverse demographic, is bad.”

The free-to-air TV coverage has seen the spotlight fall on young players such as Lancashire’s Matthew Parkinson, Tom Hartley and Ellie Threlkeld.

And although the scheduling of the competition means the Red Rose are shorn of several of their best players for their 50-over Royal London Cup campaign – along with head coach Glen Chapple who is assistant to Originals’ head coach Simon Katich – Gidney believes that creates opportunities for the county’s next generation to shine, and for Mark Chilton to develop his skills as a coach as he takes charge of the county side.

He said: “I get the point that some Lancashire players are playing in The Hundred instead of the Royal London Cup for the county. But this year we are seeing young players who may not have made the side stepping up and really performing.

“And in terms of the women’s game, The Hundred is transformational. Ellie Threlkeld is 22, she is the vice captain of Manchester Originals and Lancashire Thunder. Her development over the last few years has been astonishing. For people like her, this is life-changing.

“Players like Tom Hartley we have known about for a while at Lancashire, but now he is on a bigger stage. And the same with Ellie, she will be a superstar who will play for England and The Hundred is giving her a platform she would never have dreamed of a few years ago.”

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