It is not often that repositioning an organisation 60 years in the past is viewed as progress, but Surrey chief executive Richard Gould has found it pays to go back to the future.
Surrey are county cricket’s financial standard-bearers: annual revenue is around £32m and they announced a pre-tax profit of £1.6m for the 2016-17 financial year in April – their best outside of an Ashes summer.
A seventh profitable year has been built upon the foundations of mammoth ticket sales for T20 Blast matches, growth in club membership to around 10,000, and a record £4.5m turnover by its conference and event business.
Gould envisages that T20 Blast ticket sales will be worth £4m to the club this season, making it easy to see why Surrey felt little need to support the controversial plans for new, city-based T20 franchises.
Aided by their iconic Test match-staging ground, the Kia Oval, and proximity to central London – natural advantages over other counties and the challenging financial landscapes faced by some – Surrey are also myth-busting.
While the perception is that interest in county cricket is in sharp, perhaps terminal, decline, Gould tells a very different tale.
“The momentum and growth we have had over the last three to four years [in T20 ticket sales] shows no sign of abating,” Gould, who joined Surrey from Somerset in 2011, told City A.M.
“We’ve just never seen demand like it and we have another two years after this before the new T20 competition arrives.
“It’s really good fun to see cricket really popular once more. If you go back to the 1950s, people used to queue around the block to watch Surrey at the Oval – and that’s happening again.
“We would argue that the next three years are a golden period for county cricket because the amount of interest in it is the highest I have ever known, certainly in a generation.”
The level of digital engagement with supporters across all formats of the game, including the County Championship – a genre of cricket Gould concedes is not commercially viable – has also boomed.
Surrey’s 2017 projection is 8m video views on their club channels – twice as many as last year.
It is T20 ticket sales, however, which provide a huge financial driver and allow the 47-year-old to assertively laud Surrey as outliers compared to their competitors, as well as the confidence to revel in the quality of their product.
Surrey have a rich heritage of box office players and in this season’s T20 Gould believes they have amassed a side that would “challenge any international team on its day”.
Sri Lanka great Kumar Sangakkara, Australia T20 skipper Aaron Finch, former England captain Kevin Pietersen and current one-day opener Jason Roy are just some of the names on show.
But with the lure of lucrative worldwide white-ball tournaments such as the Indian Premier League (IPL), the domestic salary cap, which for 2017 is £2.6m including a 10 per cent London weighting, is a source of irritation.
“We need to remain competitive in the wages we can offer,” added Gould, a former tank commander, from his office high in the gods of the Oval.
“When players go off to play in the IPL, ostensibly for extra money, we would much rather be able to afford to pay our players the market rate to retain them.
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“With the explosion of T20 tournaments around the world we can’t take it for granted we’ll always be able to attract that top talent.
“We think the salary cap should be connected to the amount of revenue created by the clubs because we’re generating £4m worth of T20 revenue and none is going to players.
“In some ways, what is the point in driving up crowds if you can’t invest the proceeds in your business?
“With the new TV deal, it will be interesting to see what additional investment we will be able to make in the playing side.”
The England and Wales Cricket Board announced their record £1.1bn broadcast deal, which comes into effect in 2020 and will see cricket return to terrestrial television, on Friday.
Gould believes that, without reform, it is eminently possible that the pay dispute which has erupted in Australia and is threatening the staging of the winter’s Ashes series may be replicated here.
“It could become quite a big issue,” said Gould, who was linked with the chief executive role at the England and Wales Cricket Board before Tom Harrison’s appointment in 2014.
“The players will quite clearly be keen to get their fair share and we’d support them in that.
“I’d say watch this space. What we are seeing in Australia, we are probably going to see over here at some stage. Discussions need to take place to ensure the players get their share.”
Before the Australia series, the Oval, which has already hosted the Champions Trophy final this summer, will stage its 100th Test match when England play South Africa later this month. Only three other grounds – Lord’s, Sydney and Melbourne – have achieved such a feat.
“Often people will look at Lord’s and regard it as the home of cricket and they have a very good case for that but this is where it all started; the first Test match in England was here, the Ashes were created here,” said Gould, the son of ex-Wimbledon and Wales football boss Bobby.
“The 100th Test match just gives us the opportunity to remind people this is where it all began. The Oval most definitely is the home of cricket.”
By the summer of 2023 the Oval is set to have stolen a further march on rival arenas after plans were revealed last month for a £50m redevelopment that will increase capacity from 25,500 to 40,000.
“Lord’s have got the title of the home of cricket, but we want to be the biggest, most welcoming and most accessible cricket ground in the country,” said Gould.
The Oval has become synonymous with international celebrations as the traditional venue for the summer’s final Test, but domestically Surrey have failed to marry their financial power with silverware.
They have won just one major trophy since 2003, while on Saturday they lost a third Royal London One-Day Cup final in as many years – the antithesis of the 1950s when Surrey won seven consecutive County Championship titles.
Gould, who worked for Bristol City as their commercial director before moving into cricket administration, feels the club need to adopt a greater football-like thirst for success.
“Supporters are very demanding but probably they’re more demanding in football and rugby than cricket and we want that to change,” added Gould.
“We want our supporters to be more demanding because when they are it means they are thoroughly engaged, passionate and there is real momentum there.
“At the moment, if a cricket club doesn’t fulfil its ambition then it’s easy to make excuses: ‘we lost players to England’; ‘it rained on that day’. We want more pressure to be added.”
And so to Gould’s outlook for the future: “We want Surrey and England to win here in front of full houses. This is a really dynamic club which is very ambitious. It’s a real go-getting club and that ambition is not flash-in-the-pan-type stuff.”
With the club’s off-field enterprises soaring and rooted in modernity, perhaps the trophy cabinet will become the authoritative measure of whether Surrey truly achieve a return to a bygone age.