Game’s new order could put Hundred in private hands

Posted on August 10, 2020 by administrator

Who owns the game? The question posed is simple but not easily answered, nor very often debated in normal times, no doubt, although it is one that I find myself pondering from time to time.

It is a question, though, that will be fundamental to understanding the future of cricket in the context of the financial fallout from Covid-19, as clubs, counties, franchises and governing bodies try to navigate the storm and then move out of survival mode.

To the question posed, you might reasonably answer that no one “owns” cricket in England and that it belongs to everyone. In sport, ownership is a less easily defined concept than for a normal, physical asset. In cricket it is even more complicated than in some other sports because the game has grown organically, pastime preceding the professional construct.

Formula One is an alternative model where ownership is straightforward, with all the benefits and drawbacks that such autocracy brings. Formula One is restricted to those who pay to play and the structure makes the sport easier to organise and exploit, attracting vast investment through ruthless control of the asset. It is a sport created by professionals for professionals, with unquestioned opportunities for exploitation and expansion, which is why, presumably, Liberty Media was prepared to pay so much ($4.4 billion) for it.

Cricket evolved differently, an amateur game onto which professionalised elements have been tacked over time. Some bodies within it would claim elements of control: MCC is a regulator of sorts, co-ordinating the laws of the game; The ICC and ECB are administrative bodies and distributing agencies — they organise the professional game and sell television rights on behalf of their members; county clubs are co-operatives in the main, owned by their members for the most part. There is no one autocratic owner.

No one needs permission to play cricket. It is true that private ownership has crept into the game in recent times — in the Indian Premier League, for example — but even here these franchise owners must pay heed to the regulator, in this instance the Board of Control for Cricket in India. This has been a successful compromise of the private and public that has seen rapid growth, although this has come with attendant problems as well.

Control of the game overall is fractured, which is why there have been occasional attempted coups down the years, such as Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in the 1970s and Subhash Chandra’s short-lived Indian Cricket League which preceded the IPL.

This splintering of ownership, from counties, to national governing bodies, to privately-owned franchised leagues creates friction and uncertainty. The schedule is a mess, with competing interests fighting over the calendar and star players.

No one can exploit or organise the game exclusively. Equally, this anarchy has allowed the game to evolve in interesting ways — from T20, to T10, to The Hundred.

It is in the context of “ownership” that the ECB’s new competition, The Hundred, and the arguments over its existence should be understood. The competition has been postponed this year, but Tom Harrison, chief executive of the ECB, recently doubled down on his commitment to it in 2021 and beyond. Most debate has been over its profitability: whether it makes or loses money comes down to whether the promise of £1.3 million to each county is accounted for as a cost (bribe) or a dividend. Take your pick.

Whether it is profitable now misses the point, though. Harrison foresees a time in the not too distant future where TV rights for bilateral series between countries collapse; he sees ICC events beyond his control; he sees the powerful counties beyond his control; he sees privately owned franchise competitions beyond his control. What does the ECB do in such a world? Shrivel and die is the answer. Without The Hundred, the ECB owns nothing and has nothing to exploit.

The most prominent critic of The Hundred has been the most powerful county, Surrey. The Blast has been phenomenally successful at the Kia Oval, regular sell-outs bringing a degree of financial independence that allows them to speak their mind. You can see why they might be disgruntled: when tickets for The Hundred first went on sale, about 25 per cent were sold to the Oval franchise, with an overwhelming crossover on demographics of age and gender between buyers of tickets for the Blast and the new competition. Surrey see a neat transfer of ownership of data on supporters they have spent valuable time and energy courting.

On the fringes (in England, at least) of this battle for ownership, lies private enterprise. Last month, a consultancy called Oakwell Sports Advisory urged the

ECB to sell off equity in The Hundred franchises to private owners. The paper was part authored by one of The Hundred’s creators and was little more than a self-interested attempt to drum up business, which is not to say that the question will not be answered in the years to come.

This week I spent some time reading a soon-to-be-published book called A New Innings co-authored by Manoj Badale, the very smart co-owner of the Rajasthan Royals in the IPL. He is an evangelist for private enterprise in cricket and was in at the start of the IPL back in 2008.

He believes that Covid-19 will accelerate the path towards private enterprise in England, and that weakened counties and a weakened ECB will pave the way.

“English cricket,” he writes, “needs to embrace private investment at multiple levels — to help debt-laden Test grounds, to create a proper franchised T20 league and to monetise under-valued TV rights.”

Having spent huge energy and capital creating something they can exploit, ECB will be loath to give up ownership of The Hundred, but who knows what they will be forced to concede? As cricket emerges from a dramatic shock, this will be a key battleground.

In numbers

£1.3 million Amount each county is due to be given each year by the ECB as a result of the Hundred

£1.55 billion Global revenues produced by the game ($1.9bn) according to a report by Sundar Raman, a former chief executive of the Indian Premier League

£172 million ECB’s annual revenue, of which £41m goes to counties, according to Oakwell Sports Advisory