In the past month, I've had e-mails from Kent, Middlesex, Surrey, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire encouraging me to become a county member. The only association I've ever had with these five counties, apart from attending their respective home grounds, is that at some time or another I've bought international tickets online through their websites, so obviously someone from an e-marketing consultancy has done a presentation to all the first class counties on the benefits of using your e-mail database effectively. Thus my inbox is currently reaping the reward.
Leaving aside discounts in the club shop, and the chance to rub shoulders with the players at social events, it seems to me that the three main advantages of county membership are that you can get free entry whenever you want (once you've paid your membership), a decent pint of beer with the fossils in the pavilion, and early access to Test Match tickets.
The downside, however, is that it's quite pricey (Basic Oval membership for 2008, for example, is £150) and therefore difficult to justify, especially if you do a standard Monday to Friday job and have a child or two to demand your time and attention over a weekend, and/or you play club cricket yourself.
Counties need to start getting a bit imaginative about membership - start thinking outside the box. At a high level, they need to start breaking down some of the preconceptions that have surrounded the whole structure of membership for the past hundred years or so. There needs to be a recognition that in the modern age - as opposed to the Victorian era which was when the idea of membership was created, there are a multitude of other calls on peoples time, but that there are still thousands of people who would describe themselves as 'supporters' of their counties.
The watchword needs to be 'flexibility'.
For starters, counties should look to set up a more flexible membership system - so that buying membership no longer needs to be an 'individual' decision, but can also be a group one. They should offer a facility where a group of people, say up to six, can buy a combined membership for the same price as a full individual one.
As I've said, I can't justify spending £150 on a full membership. At current prices I'd have to get to The Oval at least fifteen times, which really isn't viable - not without divorce lawyers getting involved! Realistically, I might only be able to get to The Oval three or four times a summer. (Please note that I'm using The Oval as an example as it's local to home and office - don't start thinking that I actually support Surrey for heavens sake!)
However, I can certainly see myself paying a quarter or a sixth of £150, and therefore give myself an incentive to try and get there more often. I'm sure there are five other people at my cricket club, or in my office, who'd be up for that sort of deal. Membership could be provided as a block of vouchers, so that any of us could take vouchers from the pot whenever we could - or a group of us get together for the occasional afternoon out if it's a nice day assuming we can all bunk off work! If, over the course of the summer, we don't use all the vouchers, then the county ostensibly profits - only they don't really, because they miss out on the associated money we'd spend when we're actually inside the Hobbs Gates.
Trust me, at The Oval, in common with every county ground, you aren't going to have any trouble getting a seat, or a block of fifty for that matter. Even at local derbies (Surrey v Kent for example) when visiting members can use the pavilion, the members area is barely half full and the outfield stands as a deserted as a Boris Johnson Appreciation Society meeting in Brixton. In fact, does anyone happen to know the last time a county match was sold out?
As an added incentive, they should give such 'voucher members' the opportunity to buy test tickets. One ticket per person would be the best bet. It doesn't sound much, but when you consider that full members can buy up to six tickets for each day of the test, and through judicious re-sale cover the cost of their membership, it puts it in perspective - and provies that extra incentive to join up.
Why not take it a step further, and offer a similar system for non-members - those who don't want, or can't afford, to use the pavilion facilities. Charge someone £50 for a book of ten 'ground entry' vouchers. If they use all ten they've saved £30 on standard entry cost to a county game - but at the same time they've entered the ground ten times, which is ten opportunities for counties to make more money on sales of food, drink and other paraphenalia.
Or even take out the 'voucher' aspect and simply charge £70 for associate member status, unlimited entry, so they can pop along to the ground as often as they want. At football clubs these are called 'season tickets' - a few counties (Glamorgan for example) already do this, but it beggars belief that all of them haven't introduced such a scheme. Like I say, you're never going to have the problem of 'over-demand' on seats - on most county matchdays you need to walk twenty yards to ask someone for a light.
Surrey do market a 'season ticket', but it's more of a debenture scheme tied up with test match tickets and costs over £1600 - which isn't quite the same thing!
Let these 'associate members' or 'season ticket holders', also have the right to buy international tickets - again, just one each, but giving them another incentive for joining, and counties to get more money in the bank.
The bottom line in all of this is money for the counties. But, leaving Mammon out of the argument for a moment, what it's also doing is encouraging more people to postively and actively associate themselves with the club. It's more people who will be describing themselves as a 'Member' or 'Season Ticket holder', and therefore actively marketing the club to their mates in the pub, friends and family. Unpaid advocates, if you will.
It's also more names on the 'supporter' database for the marketing departments to utilise - more recipients for the 'house magazine' packed with advertising, and more e-mails to people like me!