The Franchise Debate by Dan Kingdom

IPLHow cricket has changed in recent years. I would go as far as to say that we have seen the biggest wholesale shift cricket has ever seen. Music, cheerleaders, player auctions, celebrities, DLF maximums, sponsors, fan of the match, nicknames…and franchises.

In 2008, Lalit Modi created the IPL, cashing in on India’s 2007 World t20 victory and exploiting India’s mass, cricket-loving market. It worked. Eight privately owned franchises, two months of pure, televised, in-your-face t20 cricket. The fans loved it. In subsequent years, we have seen more franchise leagues spring up around the world, from the good (Australia’s Big Bash League), the bad (the Bangladesh Premier League) and the ugly (the Sri Lanka Premier League). Almost all test match-playing countries (and even the USA!) have made moves to create leagues, with varying degrees of success. This includes England – in 2010, county representatives met Modi to discuss an English Premier League. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with the non-test match counties. And in the last couple of years, these calls have restarted, especially after the BBL’s success. Now, I have nothing against franchise t20 leagues (unless they flop like the SLPL and BPL). I watch the IPL. I watch the BBL. Hell, a BBL match is on the TV in front of me as I type this. But I do not want to see t20 franchises replace the English county system, for a number of reasons.

The original point of t20 cricket was to attract new fans to the game and end the counties’ reliance on ECB handouts. Franchises would see a return to non-test counties relying on these. Most pundits’ proposals for a franchise league involve 8-10 teams. Say there were 10 teams, based at the test grounds plus Bristol. You’d immediately alienate fans of the small counties such as Somerset, Essex, Worcestershire and Sussex (and it’s at Taunton and Chelmsford where English t20 is at its best – small ground, incredible atmosphere!). Would Somerset fans regularly drive up the M5 to watch the Bristol Bashers? Would Essex fans go and watch the North London Lobsters? Doubtful in my opinion. As a Somerset fan, I’m not going to support a team that is effectively Gloucestershire, and I’m sure most other Somerset fans feel the same way. Some proposals don’t even include a Bristol team! Are we meant to support Cardiff then? Or Southampton? English fans have a tribal nature. We support OUR team, not a made-up team with players drawn from around the country. Franchises will never be able to recreate the passion that goes with Yorkshire v Lancashire, or Somerset v Gloucestershire, or Middlesex v Surrey. Warwickshire rebranded themselves as the ‘Birmingham Bears’ for this year’s t20 Blast. They won the competition, but it was not a roaring success in terms of spectator numbers. There were even protests against the name change from the Warwickshire faithful.

Big Bash

Furthermore, franchises would probably see players being mixed around, so we end up with Marcus Trescothick playing for ‘Nottingham’, Andrew Flintoff playing for ‘South London’ and Alex Hales playing for ‘Manchester’. Franchises cannot recreate the passion that home grown players play with. We would see players playing for made up teams they have no passion for. We would see players switching teams constantly, like in other franchise leagues. There would be no loyalty. You cannot replicate the passion of home grown players with made-up franchises. Plus, we saw players like Richard Oliver, Tom Westley and Max Waller thrive in this year’s Blast. Would they have been given that opportunity in a franchise competition?

Sri Lanka t20One of the main reasons for franchises is supposedly to attract new fans. What new fans? Are there potential fans that would attend English domestic t20 if we had franchises instead? I don’t think casual fans are too bothered. When they see counties, they see good overseas players, good cricket and have a good evening out. I simply do not think there are new demographics to tap into. I certainly know who would NOT attend though. A decent number of t20 spectators (say 30-40%) are retired, who have probably been watching their county all their lives. Not many of these are going to support a made-up team that has replaced their beloved county. Younger members of the non-test counties would mainly feel the same way in my opinion. Another market is younger people looking for a good night of booze and cricket. This demographic would continue attending if they are test county fans, but I’m not sure they would trek up the motorway to watch Bristol Bashers, either.

Therefore: casual fans of the big counties would attend, and some of the more die-hard fans. But you’d estrange almost all smaller counties’ fans, and many members of the big counties. I don’t think this loss can be made up for by new markets.

Look at it this way: very few of my friends are cricket fans. They aren’t suddenly going to watch cricket because of a franchise league where they have to travel to Bristol for Bristol Bashers v Manchester Meerkats with Sohail Tanvir and Rusty Theron as the ‘star’ overseas players. They aren’t cricket fans and franchises won’t change this.

If you take t20 away from rural areas, you would kill the game there. As previously emphasised, t20 is the way to get casual fans into cricket. These fans are not going to watch smaller counties as much if 50 over and championship games are the only cricket available to them. In the long-term, this could result in less kids watching cricket, reducing interest in the game and killing cricket in some regions. Franchise cricket is trying to increase interest…by decreasing the number of teams.

Admittedly, decreasing the number of teams would improve the standard. I think we’re at a fairly high standard anyway (and it can be improved further by allowing England test players to take part), and England won the world t20 in 2010. Neither Australia nor India have won the World t20 since the introduction of their franchise leagues. I would back most counties to beat some of the lower-ranked BBL teams – Brisbane Heat and Sydney Thunder are distinctly average.

In terms of overseas players, we’re never going to match the IPL. But we still had decent overseas players over here in 2014 – Finch, Maxwell, Ryder, Sammy, Ajmal, Graeme Smith, Amla, Dilshan and Williamson are world stars. I don’t think the BBL’s quality of overseas players is too dissimilar – Kallis, Pollard, Wright, Pietersen, Morgan, Dwayne Bravo and Hales are the cream of the crop there.

I’ve seen many people under the impression that franchises will automatically attract Kohli, de Villiers, McCullum, Dhoni and Steyn. Newsflash: no. Even Kevin Pietersen recently said we could get ‘all the best players together’ for the tournament. The world’s best play IPL and their home country’s t20 league. That’s it. International schedules are too packed for them to play any more. The BCCI don’t even let Indians play t20 outside the IPL. The overseas players a franchise league would attract are retired greats such as Kallis, and t20 stars such as Finch. We get those sorts of players anyway. Franchises wouldn’t improve the quality of overseas players.

T20 BlastThe way some people talk about it, you’d think that English domestic t20 is played by village players, in front of 100 people, with every game meandering to a tame finish. In reality, there were plenty of entertaining games last season, while aggregate spectator numbers were at an all-time high (beating 2010 and 2011 when more games were played), and the average gate was 5,772 – up by 619 from an average of the past 5 seasons. Average spectator numbers did drop from 2013, but this can be put down to the football World Cup being played and 2013’s unusually good weather. The litmus test will be next season, with no major events being played concurrently. Plus, the t20 Blast was played on Friday nights throughout the summer in 2014 – in response to a fan survey. Franchises would necessitate it being played in a block again, contrary to what the fans want. T20 cricket here has modernised to some extent – counties are now permitted two overseas players, there’s a fair amount of TV coverage, and Finals Day is one of the best days on the cricketing calendar.

I am not saying that domestic t20 in England is as good as it can be – far from it. I believe that the ECB and the counties can implement a number of improvements. Firstly, something must be done to get the tournament on free to air TV, similar to the BBL (which is now shown solely on FTA). Ideally, every game would be on FTA, but in reality, I would be happy with a few games on Sky’s Pick TV channel, and some form of weekly highlights show, perhaps on a more major FTA channel. Secondly, the BBL holds ‘Fan Days’ where fans can meet the players, get autographs, play on the team’s ground and participate in other activities. I don’t see why something similar couldn’t be done here for the counties – it would be cheap and easy to run, once a year, and would increase publicity. Thirdly, I believe the ECB need to speak to the mass market. The survey they ran two years ago was laborious and mainly only reached proper cricket fans. I think they need to speak, face-to-face, with casual fans and find out their needs in order to improve the competition further.

Ideally, England’s test players would be more available than they currently are, but this is difficult with the number of matches they currently play. This season there was a round of games where England players were not permitted to play on a Friday, with a test not starting until the next week! It’s a no-brainer – the ECB should allow England players to play more.

A final way of improving the competition contradicts this a tad, though. I think the Blast should be moved, partially or completely, to the summer holidays. Playing it in the holidays has worked wonders in the BBL. Why not try it here? The only problem with this is that England’s test players would rarely be available as this is when the main test series is played. But Australia’s test players very rarely play in the BBL, and yet spectator numbers remain high. Some sort of move does need to happen, in my opinion, in World Cup and European Championship years. Cricket cannot compete with football in this country.

That leads me on to my next point. In India, and to a lesser extent Australia, cricket is ingrained in the culture. The IPL works because it’s what the fans wanted – a chance to see their favourite stars in action. Often they support a player, not a team. The IPL was the first attempt at a mass market t20 competition in India, and the fans have lapped it up. We are never going to match the IPL. Why do we need to, anyway? We just have a different system here. It works. Is there a need to take it to a global audience?

Ram Slam t20The BBL has worked in Australia for similar reasons. Before the BBL, Australia’s t20 competition was the plain old Big Bash, played by the six states. The change to cities worked for several reasons. No fans were alienated because all the venues the Big Bash was played at are still in use, just with slightly different teams. For example, fans of Western Australia just support Perth Scorchers instead. They are mainly made up of players who play for Western Australia anyway, and they play at the same ground. The tournament is the same, just marketed better with more worldwide publicity. Plus, the BBL actually added two extra teams, further increasing opportunities for home grown players. There was not really a need to take the game much further, because the majority of Australia’s population resides in the six state capitals.

Sadly, I will be very surprised if a t20 franchise league never appears in England. If t20 in England fails, there will be calls for franchises to save it. If it does well, people will say how much potential it supposedly has for franchises. Calls for change from players and pundits are increasing, and it would be naïve to think that the current format will remain forever. If franchises do happen one day, I propose this: first, keep the t20 Blast, but return it to the old format of 3 groups of 6 and 10 games each. Keep the local derbies, the home grown players, the passion. Secondly, have 10 franchises, one for each test ground plus Bristol. Play a tournament at the end of August, allow England players to play and perhaps players from the international side that’s touring along with other overseas stars. Two groups of five, play each team once, two games per day, all on TV. It could be done in two weeks. I don’t want this to happen, but you get the best of both worlds.

Ultimately though, I believe we should embrace the t20 Blast and enjoy it for what it is. We have a unique system which allows home grown talent to flourish. We have local derbies that are steeped in history. We have Finals Day, which is unique in senior cricket. We have a system that brings the game to everyone, not just people in the cities.

Don’t fix what isn’t broken, ECB!!