“Embarrassing and shambolic – a total mess.” No, not the England team’s performance against Pakistan in the First Test at Lord’s last month, but former skipper Michael Vaughan’s verdict on the England and Wales Cricket Board’s proposal for a new eight-team city-based tournament, dubbed “The Hundred”.
It is fair to say that the announcement of a new 100-ball competition – designed to appeal to a younger audience and attract new fans to the game – has not been an unqualified success.
Critics aplenty have been queuing up to lambast the move as a marketing gimmick, insufficiently distinct from Twenty20 at just 20 balls fewer per innings, and a format too far for a sport already struggling to cope with T20, 50-over and Test cricket.
Not the ideal starting point for drumming up sponsor interest. But cricket has been on a sticky wicket for some time now. The ECB struggled to find a sponsor for its Test activity, after Investec pulled out of their 10-year, £40m sponsorship deal three years early. Two pre-existing ECB sponsors – NatWest and Specsavers – have filled the void. That doesn’t exactly suggest brands are queuing up at the Grace Gates to be associated with the game.
England’s abject performances on the pitch haven’t helped matters. Nor has the steady stream of negative headlines over the last year – be it Ben Stokes being charged with affray, Australia admitting ball-tampering or the recent allegations – strongly denied – of English spot-fixing.
Against that backdrop, and the ECB’s chairman opining that “the younger generation, whether you like it or not, are just not attracted to cricket”, one might assume that The Hundred will struggle to garner sponsor interest. But you would be wrong.
The tournament is a fresh, new opportunity, unencumbered by any previous sponsor baggage, which always plays well with prospective brands. In its previous incarnation as another 20-over competition it would have been up against an existing tournament, the NatWest T20 Blast. Now it has differentiation, innovation, and a USP.
That proposition includes both male and female competitions, and will benefit from the ever-increasing brand interest in women’s sport. It will be interesting to see whether the ECB unbundle the male and female strands for separate sponsors, although that could create marketing and logistical complexity, especially given the proposed double-headers.
Brands will climb aboard if there is certainty about fan interest, and reaching the valuable family and youth audience. This is where the ECB has some trump cards. They recently signed a monster broadcast deal with the BBC and Sky – reportedly worth £1.1bn over five years – that includes this new tournament.
Creating a format that starts at either 2.30pm or 6.30pm and lasts only three hours was not just so that families attending could get home for their kids’ tea or bedtime. Fitting broadcaster slots was arguably a far more significant consideration. The BBC will show 10 of the 36 games live on terrestrial TV, giving cricket – and its sponsors – much needed reach into homes nationwide.
The marketing muscle of Sky and the BBC is in the bag, but the ECB have their own marketing chops. The Women’s World Cup in 2017 was a case study in engaging a new audience with the right marketing, and creating an accessible, family-friendly matchday experience. And ECB execs have made many a trip to the Big Bash in Australia, where there’s a ready-made blueprint on how to engage a family audience in a new competition.
The build-up to the new tournament couldn’t be much better, with a Cricket World Cup on home soil in 2019, marketing to the very same Big Eventer family audience that The Hundred will be trying to capture. Throw in a home Ashes series in 2019 as well, and it is a pretty good time for those ECB execs to be out selling their wares.
Ultimately, a lot comes down to the price tag. The ECB’s revenue expectations should be mitigated by the coffers swelling from the £1.1bn broadcast deal. Attracting brands who will help to market the tournament and engage the right audience – straight from that Big Bash playbook – should be prioritised over a fat cheque.
So, will there be a ton of brands clamouring to be associated with the new short format tournament? Assuming the ECB play the long game, one hundred per cent.