In my facebook feed came a very well written article by George Dobell which really got me thinking about the future of cricket in England and Wales.
British sport is a funny old thing. There are 92 professional football clubs in England and Wales. In the American NFL, there are 32 teams and in the Australian Football League there are 18. Cricket in England and Wales is played by 18 counties, albeit in two divisions. The Sheffield Shield in Australia has 6 teams and there is the same number in New Zealand. A further complication is the cup competitions that are popular in Britain that seem to be less prevalent elsewhere.
The county system is seemingly an accident of history but, worryingly, we are hearing more tales of financial difficulties. There has always seemed to be something of a financial divide between those counties with a Test match ground and the rest but a largely even playing field always tended to be maintained. The advent of T20 games has brought financial benefits which makes stories of money woes even more concerning. The possibility of a city based franchise similar to the Big Bash in Australia has motivated some to create a "save out counties" movement in advance of any major announcements.
Some parallels can be drawn with the experience Rugby League went through with the advent of Superleague in the mid nineties. This new big dawn for the sport was expected to involve club mergers in order to reduce the number of professional teams and thus, making money go further. One might suggest that, for example, a central Yorkshire side involving a merger between teams like Castleford, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Batley and Featherstone could have created a powerhouse with potential crowds in excess of 20,000. A single Hull side perhaps? Warrington and Widnes? All these potential mergers and more could have resulted in big crowds and successful, well funded teams. There is just one thing...
.....its called heritage.
Anyone suggesting mergers in some towns could have been lynched. Try convincing Hull and Hull KR supporters that they should come together for the greater good. This would lose a hundred years of history in one fail swoop. People identify with their sports teams no matter what the sport and any attack on them is an attack on the community and the history of the area. Try suggesting to Everton and Liverpool supporters that they need to come together. Which brings me to the next thing....
Liverpool and Everton get in excess of 40,000 spectators per week and play in a multi-billion pound league. The combined attendance of Hull and Hull KR would be around 20,000 and they are two of the better supported clubs in the sport. County cricket suffers a similar, if not worse attendance problem. It is something of an urban legend that the players in county cricket outnumber the spectators but it gives you a picture. The T20 games get bigger attendances and that money can be vital for the clubs. However, it is not entirely unsurprising that alternatives are being considered.
The Big Bash League in Australia will be cited as an example of what can be achieved. This is a city based franchise system that has achieved huge audiences and is separate to the established State system. Each state does have at least one franchise within it depending on the size of their respective Capital cities. One might argue that assuming that a similar system in England fails to show an understanding of how British sport works. As Dobell insightfully observes, try getting Lancashire and Yorkshire supporters to support Manchester and Leeds respectively. Due to the history of cricket in this country, supporters identify with counties. Cricket does not create the same animosity as football does but football is so popular in England and does seem to create a high degree of loathing between nearby clubs which makes identifying with a city based cricket team (despite the fact it is a different sport) somewhat challenging. Think Liverpool and Manchester.
Australian sport is not immune to the same issue but the sheer geographical separation between the cities makes the situation very different. The identification with a city team also seems to be strong. Brisbane for example has a single rugby league side and a single AFL side. The women's game (of which I am a big supporter) has greater potential for a franchise system due to its relative modernity,
My concern is that we will lose heritage for no great benefit if a city based franchise is introduced. Star players like Chris Gayle still came to play. It is also worth noting that Northants won the T20 this year with no real superstars and no Test match ground to rely on. Northants would be one of those counties that would almost certainly lose out, Some sort of different arrangement would be worth considering (two divisions maybe) but my preference is for the traditions of the county game. The proviso I will put with that is that if people want to maintain the county game then they really need to support it by turning up to watch. It is harder to defend a county system with empty stands all the time.