Following the launch of Pagefield Sport, Sam Barnett opens the batting for a new series of sports blogs. Sam considers how the English and Wales Cricket Board could launch ‘The Hundred’, a controversial new tournament set to start play in 2020.
Cricket is dying, apparently. Figures show that 58% of Brits find the sport ‘dull and boring’, with young people particularly disinterested in the game. The English and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) Chairman Colin Graves summarised the research by saying that the next generation is “just not attracted to the game”.
Responding to this, the ECB has devised its own format: The Hundred.
The Hundred is based on Twenty20, a fast-paced and globally popular version of the sport, played over a shorter length of time than traditional cricket. The Hundred goes even shorter, with innings lasting 100 balls rather than 120. This means that games won’t follow cricket’s usual six ball over structure, with the final over of each The Hundred match lasting a tiring ten balls.
These changes come from detailed market research. The ECB has found that families are more likely to go to a sport that wraps up in two-and-a-half hours and they received broader feedback that cricket is too complicated.
Graves says the next generation “want more excitement, they want it shorter and simpler to understand.” This makes some sense. However, the resulting changes have infuriated cricket’s existing community, who are struggling to palate dramatic changes to the sport’s fundamentals.
Bowling to new channels
Many of cricket’s core fans worry about the sport not being available on free-to-air television. They should take heart from the ECB’s agreement to show some of The Hundred on terrestrial TV, but this may soon be outdated.
One of the competition’s biggest challenges will be keeping pace with the ever-changing preferences of young people, who are drifting away from television and towards watching content online. The ECB has shown some ingenuity already, its four-day County Championship tournament is primitively broadcast online and has gained tens of thousands of viewers.
Expectations for The Hundred will be far greater, the ECB should prioritise making the game easy and engaging to watch online. Games will have to be packaged in intriguing ways, this could include alerting fans to watch the final ten balls of close games or enabling viewers to speak to players in-game, something commentators can already do.
The Indian Premier League, the most popular Twenty20 league in the world, realised this early on. In 2008, the tournament sold its television rights for billions but retained digital rights. These were then used to broadcast the game to a global audience.
Beyond the matches, The Hundred will need supporting content that gives the tournament personality.
‘Involving influencers’ has become a cliché but it will be key to The Hundred’s success. The ECB will need to find personalities with a large, young audience and an interest in the game. These influencers should be invited into dressing rooms to interview players, into nets to face bowling and into commentary boxes to add colour.
The Hundred would also benefit from a video game that goes beyond cricket’s core audience. Madden offers a best practice example. The American football game helped spark the NFL’s growth in the UK despite the sport’s complicated rules and league structure, with this interest being converted into ticket sales and new players.
Any future game needs to be regularly updated and feature a strong community mode, where players can play each other rather than the game’s AI. To build on this, the ECB could create tournaments where the best players can take on each other for cash – these could be hosted at Lord’s or other iconic grounds.
Of course, none of this will cheer up cricket’s existing fans. They will only be happy when new fans start strapping on pads and taking guard. Or, in non-cricket jargon, playing.
The Board recently started an innovative plan to engage South Asian communities with the sport and there are also exciting efforts to get the game back into schools. These efforts would benefit hugely from a popular tournament.
For hope, look to a land down under. The Australian public has fallen back in love with the game thanks to the country’s Big Bash competition. A smartly promoted tournament where franchise teams play Twenty20.
A long time ago, this tournament upset the country’s cricket purists. Now, they have gone quiet.
Why? Cricket has just become Australia’s most played sport.