LONDON, (Reuters) – Unintelligible to most beyond Britain and its former colonies and under threat from an upstart short form of the game, the battle for “the Ashes” with Australia is a rare chance for English cricket to prove its financial worth.
With strong roots in the country’s expensive private schools and still divided into patrician “gentlemen” and working class “players” as recently as the 1950s, the national summer sport is an integral part of the country’s heritage.
But in commercial terms, the traditional version of the game, with its quaint rituals of lunch and tea breaks and where a stalemate is possible even after five days, faces a struggle to prove its relevance.
Cricket-mad India, whose 1 billion consumers represent the game’s largest market, has been seduced by T20, luring the world’s top players on big salaries to a Premier League where the game is over in a deafening three-hour flurry of hits and misses.
It’s a far cry from 1877 when England and Australia played their first international. The Ashes term was coined five years later when a mock obituary was published to lament England’s first home defeat by former penal colony Australia.
More recently the West Indies’ and then Australians’ domination in the 1990s forced reform on the game’s rulers and led to a revival back home.
Playing on the love-hate relationship between Australia and Britons, the Ashes brand will put the purest form of the game at the centre of the UK sporting landscape for the next few weeks.
“It is the ultimate opportunity for us as a governing body to inspire the nation to play, attend and follow more cricket,” said John Perera, commercial director with the England and Wales Cricket (ECB) board.
“This gives cricket the ‘shop window’ that it needs every four years,” added Perera, looking ahead to the start of the five-test Ashes series in Nottingham on July 10.
Cricket is not the easiest product to sell. A game with complex rules, like baseball it has the capacity to baffle or delight. As well as requiring time, expensive kit is needed when children graduate to playing with its hard ball.
“Instead of a traditional football in the winter, cricket in the summer model, schools and society are now exposed to and take advantage of a range of diverse and sometimes new sports,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of sports marketing at Coventry University in central England.
In common with other sports in Britain, cricket pales in comparison with the riches generated by the runaway success of soccer’s Premier League at home and worldwide.
English cricket revenues rose to 200 million pounds ($305 million)in 2012, up from 166 million in 2007 thanks largely to higher broadcast income, Deloitte said in a recent report. By comparison, English Premier League clubs generated more than 2.3 billion pounds in revenues in 2011-12.
Mindful of the threats it faced, cricket tried to broaden its appeal with T20 which launched in England in 2003 and has taken off in the handful of former British colonies where the sport is played to a high level.
India has found that there is money to be made in T20, auctioning off eight franchises when the IPL was launched in 2008 for an average of $90 million per team.
Stuart Robertson, the commercial director of the Hampshire county team in southern England, said T20 had attracted more women and families to cricket. However, crowds for four-day county matches, where future test players learn their craft, remain painfully sparse.
“Have we moved them on to the long forms of the game? I don’t think so yet. It might take time,” said Robertson, who helped to pioneer T20 when he was marketing manager of the ECB.
TEST CRICKET FIGHTS BACK
Test cricket showed it could still recapture hearts and minds in 2005 when England won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years in a series of excruciating drama that made folk heroes of players like talismanic all-rounder Andrew Flintoff.
“There was a real resurrection of test cricket at the 2005 Ashes,” said Robertson.
England were thrashed 5-0 in Australia in 2006-07 but have won the last two series and find themselves as favourites again in what should be an even contest.
In Australia, the cricket board has just doubled its money in a new TV deal to screen international matches and the domestic T20 competition.
In Britain, cricket remains a mainstay of the summer schedules for pay TV operator BSkyB and like rugby attracts sponsors who target the more affluent middle classes.
The England team will have a new sponsor from 2014 when food retailer Waitrose replaces insurer Brit. Banking group Investec has the naming rights to test cricket in England in a deal that runs until 2021.
Companies are attracted by its committed fans and its traditional link to values of sportsmanship and fair play, said David Peters, head of sponsorship at marketing company Carat.
“The fundamentals of the sport are really strong,” he said.
“As a world sport, it’s very big in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, if you are a brand that values those markets it’s good to be involved.”