Friday, September 28, 2007

The Home Front (Part 1)

(First of a two part overview of the current county scene from a financial perspective. In part one we look at the growing divide between county 'haves' and 'have nots' - Part Two to follow shortly)

Of the eighteen first class counties, eight are current England international hosts. Of those eight, six will be in the County Championship First Division next season - and the other two are probably the ante post favourites for promotion next season - Warwickshire, who were relegated at the end of this season and Middlesex who finished a close third in Division 2.

It looks as though there may be a pattern developing here, and we might soon come to a situation whereby some counties in Division 2 cease to be financially viable. Effectively the number of counties could be reduced by a Darwinian 'survival of the fittest' process - especially if the ECB ever change their county funding policy . Giles Clarke certainly seems like the hard nosed businessman who wouldn't bat an eyelid if the odd lame duck went under - or maybe semi-professional.

Current financial data is difficult to get hold of, but I've previously posted here about how up to 50% of a non-international host county income will come in the form of the 'hand out' from the ECB. For example, all counties got around £1.5m in 2006 - Worcestershire's total income from all sources in that year - sponsorship, membership, gate receipts etc, was just over £3m.

I think we can safely assume that the situation at New Road didn't get much better in 2007, when you bear in mind the financial hit they took through most of their home '20/20' games being rained off. Their two solutions so far appear to be asking the ECB (successfully in this instance), for an additional hand-out, and an Elton John concert planned for next year - desparation indeed!

It's very much a given that being an international host gives a county a big financial advantage. Beyond the obvious benefits of the clicking of turnstiles, membership at test county grounds will be higher due to the accessibility of test match tickets. Additionally it's easier to attract companies to your corporate boxes, and you can charge a higher premium for on-ground advertising. Your 'cut' from concession stands will also be higher - and local businesses (hotels, restaurants etc) will be happier to get involved in county activities knowing that they'll have a captive test match audience at least once a year.

Increased revenue means you can attract better quality overseas players - thus increasing interest in the county, bolstering your chances of staying in, or getting to, the top flight - and giving you an advantage in the cups. Then you get to a 'success breeds success' scenario - evidenced by Stuart Broad's move from Leicestershire to Notts.

More revenue also means a better coaching structure, and a better chance of indentifying future stars - before they get frustrated and either drop out of the game and move off to another county.

It's instructive at this point to look at the three counties in Division One next season who are bucking the trend.

1. Somerset. Very well organised county structure and have the advantage of being the 'only game in town' sportswise in the region. If any county could say that they had a 'fanatically loyal football style supporter base' it's Cidershire. Also had the advantage of a whole year of Trescothick this summer - plus a highly committed overseas pro in Justin Langer and an evergreen (evergrey?) Andy Caddick.

2. Kent. Two words - 'Robert Key'. Effectively voted 'captain of the year' by his fellow professionals, Key lead from the front all summer. Scored almost half as many first class runs again as any other Kent batsman and generally cajoled, inspired and sweated blood to keep them in the first division. The 20/20 trophy was a nice surprise - and a 'nice little earner' to boot, though having to repair the Edgbaston dressing room after Key trashed it on finals day must have eaten into the profits somewhat!

To stay up in 2008 however, they'll need a slightly better overseas pro than Van Jaarsveld - who's certainly useful - but not quite in the 'class' category. Now might be a good time to dig out Dwayne Bravo's phone number again. Also, Canterbury is looking on the shabby side - the Wooley and Ames Stands look like they were built before the said players started strutting their stuff under the Elm tree, and the whole place could do with a bit of a facelift. It'll be interesting to see how they handle and fund redevelopment.

3. Sussex - Simple. A few years ago they got a 12 million pound inheritance from a rich member. That's almost four times the annual income of some counties, and meant that they could invest for the future and pay for a virtual phalanx of high class overseas recruits to bolster their one day efforts. At one stage they had Rana Naved, Saqlain, Mushtaq Ahmed and Murray Goodwin in the same line up - shades of Kanhai, Kallicharran, Gibbs & Murray!

No wonder Chris Adams did his abrupt about turn!

Obviously being a test host doesn't automatically guarantee continued success - Nottinghamshire have only just come back to the first division, and even Surrey had to slum it down with the riff-raff for a short time up to last year, but it could well become an increasing demarcation line as counties start having to look at their balance sheets more closely when considering strategy to reach, and maintain their position in, the first division. Which was probably the unstated objective all along.

Many activists for change, such as Bob Willis, Mike Atherton and the Cricket Reform Group, have long lobbied for a County Championship based on a reduced number of counties at the test grounds on a regional basis. The CRG was keen on an immediate change to the first class structure - maybe advance by the slow lane will prove to be just as effective.

(In Part Two we'll look at the prosepcts for the counties in the 'have not' category.)


Innocent Abroad said...

Yes indeed - no other country has (or wants) 18 first-class teams, and a natural "cull" has much to commend it.

Still, if Sussex could get such a windfall (didn't know that one), maybe it'll happen for Northants too!

Anonymous said...

"To stay up in 2008 however, they'll need a slightly better overseas pro than Van Jaarsveld - who's certainly useful - but not quite in the 'class' category. Now might be a good time to dig out Dwayne Bravo's phone number again."

Dwayne Bravo???

Look, that's a big call. The guy has remarkable gifts, but like all the West Indians of this generation, the stars have to be in alignment for him to perform. Neither him nor any West Indian player is consistent enough to perform day in, day out through the hard grind of an English county season.

Much better to invest your money in a hardbitten Aussie pro of the Andy Bichel/Justin Langer mould.

Mark said...

Funnily enough, Bravo already has performed throughout a whole county season and did a pretty good job too.

He's come on leaps and bounds since then (maybe as a result of the experience of that season?) and of all the Windies players, he's probably one of two (t'other is Shiv) who doesn't need all the stars in alignment to do a job.