Tuesday, 27 August 2019

The Small Guys

"The Grabbing Hands, Grab all they can" sang Depeche Mode back in the early 80's, in the days when commercialism in sport stretched to a Hitachi or a JVC spread across the shirts of the odd football kit. Fast forward thirty six years or so and today sees two very proud football clubs about to go out of business. Clubs are at the heart of their communities and leave a huge hole, as sadly, the residents of Bolton and Bury could be about to find out. But is the same scenario happening in cricket? Despite the wealth of neighbours, are some of the smaller counties being squeezed out by their bosses?

Made in Somerset and Durham
Two days ago Ben Stokes and Jack Leach became nationwide stars. Stokes spent his formative county cricketing years in Durham, Leach down at Somerset. Neither county host Test cricket, not since Durham lost their Test status. Fans of both counties will feel aggrieved that they will have to watch County Championship cricket shunted into the beginning of the season (when a few years ago Middlesex played Durham in 1 degree centigrade with players wearing beanies in front of a crowd of about 30), or at the end of the season on wickets that can only politely be described as 'tired'.

And why? Because of the money to be made from hosting a competition called the 100.

The 50 over competition, of which we are world champions on the international stage, will be relegated to a development tournament, with T20 losing its best players to the 100. Durham fans already feel harshly done by, when the ECB sanctioned them heavily in 2016 and the county have never recovered. If their fans want to go and watch the 100, then they will have to make the journey down the A1 to Leeds to watch the so called "Northern Superchargers". Sport in the North East is integral to the communities that make up County Durham and they have produced numerous players to the national side during their first class existence. Their two major football clubs have suffered in recent years, with owners taking the blame.

Likewise Somerset followers will have to trawl up the M5, queue to get across the Severn Bridge, navigate that heavy traffic that always builds up in the Newport area before finally finding somewhere to park in Cardiff and get into the ground. The chances of either Durham fans making the trip to Leeds or Somerset going to Cardiff to support a made up franchise, are slimmer than Nathan Lyon.


Durham in Test playing days

So therefore, what is happening in cricket is that the ECB are deliberately promoting eight centres ahead of the other ten remaining counties. Funnily enough these are at the Test playing venues and the rich will get richer whilst the smaller ones will in effect, not have the infrastructure to compete with their bigger neighbours.

For years, we have seen this happening - a slow strangulation of the smaller counties as the likes of Leicestershire lost Stuart Broad or Durham lost Stoneman, Jennings and Borthwick. Leicestershire are perceived as a smaller county, yet it is a city rich in sporting history with their cricket, football and rugby clubs all winning silverware in the last twenty years. Leicestershire have continually lost their better players and will continue to do so in years to come.

If you look at football in the last thirty years, television rights produce an obscene amount of money to the elite clubs, possibly more if a European Super League rises in the name of corporate greed. Two of those clubs are likely to be Manchester City and United, yet two clubs supported by loyal fans just a short drive away, are about to close their doors on their support for the last time.


The same is true for cricket

Sport is not all about television rights. Jock Stein said, "Football without fans, is nothing" and the same could be said for cricket. It is about those clubs at the heart of their communities who represent me and you. It is not about television income, new audiences or funky advertising campaigns, it is about promoting the game to kids in eighteen counties. It is about making sure that they support their local side - a side that they can relate to in geographic terms, just as those Lancastrian kids who support Bolton or Bury do. It is about making kids in the North East able to watch their heroes play for their local club. Without the fans, the game dies. With that comes the knock on effect of jobs going, pubs in the area shutting down along with other businesses that rely on sport to survive.

The ECB has a classic opportunity at the moment. England have just won the World Cup and Ben Stokes has ensured we have 'Ashes fever'. Kids are playing in the parks with our one day kits on and people who don't know their Roots from their Roys are suddenly talking to me about the game. The opportunity that was missed in 2005 by hiding the game behind a paywall and ensuring that the numbers playing recreational cricket dropped, needs to be atoned for and that is by backing the Vitality Blast. With numbers up all around the counties at present, the goose that is laying the golden egg is about to be turned into a farmyard chicken.

Whether this opportunity is taken with both hands remains to be seen, or whether Northamptonshire, Durham, Leicestershire or Derbyshire end up as the Bury or a Bolton Wanderers of cricket is more likely.

To let the counties die, would be criminal.

Sport, whether it is cricket or football is about the people who watch it. It is about all teams, no matter how big or small and the people who support those sides. Administrators and the bigger clubs have a responsibility to capitalise on the 'Stokes Effect' and to support all eighteen counties. That includes the small guys.

All those years of history, surely outweighs a quick buck?

4 comments:

  1. Great piece of commentary this. I agree with every word.

    I am baffled, perplexed, frustrated and angered by the ECB's apparent strategy.

    England's success at international level is key to the future of the sport in this country. It's what gives birth to new cricket fans. Right now, both my 5 year old son and 8 year old daughter both want to be Ben Stokes.

    Yet the ECB clearly, VERY clearly value neither the county championship nor the 50 over competition.

    This will lead to the inevitable point in time where England's ODI and Test performances suffer.

    There is already evidence of this - just look at England's fragile batting against the red ball this summer. Is it any wonder they struggle when the players have no opportunity to play quality 4 day cricket for their counties?

    And don't even get me started on the 100.....

    Not required. Pointless.

    Ben Stokes and his performances in the world cup and the ashes are all that is required to safe guard the game we love and bring on new fans.

    Just make sure it's on free telly so kids can stumble across it, as I did 35 years ago.

    Piss off ECB. It's not your game it's mine, and everyone that was glued to their radio or television for all of Sunday......

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  2. Great feedback mate. Thanks for your input. Agree, it is our game.

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    1. Also, always nice to see a Depeche Mode quote!

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  3. We all know it. Fans and commentators alike. But with little or no support from our County Boatds there seems little we can do about it. Seem to just be waiting for it to blow over, though I feel those in control will not accept it even if it does all fail.

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