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Can The Hundred diversify English cricket’s audience?

- By Alex Bidwell

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After a long hiatus, and despite a rain-induced delay, cricket resumed on our screens on 8th July as England’s men took on the West Indies in the first Test in a three-match series. As the Sky broadcasting team, well versed in filling rain delays, expertly occupied Wednesday morning they considered the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, with some emotional and thought-provoking words from Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent, before then refocusing on the cricket.

This was the first series England had hosted since the unprecedented highs of last summer, when they hosted and won their first ODI World Cup before battling it out against Australia in an enthralling home Ashes Series. Both events had built up great momentum for the game of cricket and the hope for this summer was to expand cricket in England over the course of the 2020 season with the help of the new format - The Hundred.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 that momentum somewhat stagnated, as sport blended into the background of less important matters, but with sports resuming and pubs and restaurants re-opening it appears as though we are returning to some form of normality.

Cricket, like all other sports, has resumed behind closed doors, adhering to social distancing guidelines. Domestic and international matches are going ahead, being squeezed into a condensed cricketing calendar that was already bursting at the seams. Consequently, The Hundred, the ECB’s brainchild, has been postponed until the summer of 2021 and the players due to take part in the tournament have had their contracts terminated.

That postponement means there will be a 4-year gap between the idea’s conception and the first ball being bowled. To maintain the hype around a tournament which has seen its draft in October, with all the appropriate glitz and glamour, made redundant and over £10 million already spent on marketing, is going to be extremely difficult. The pandemic afforded those in charge the opportunity to abandon the tournament, saving face given the global chaos, and then return with a more pragmatic, less ambitious plan. The organisers though have crusaded on and the message projected is that this is too big to fail. A reasonable decision considering the ECB have already spent £180 million to create 8 new city-based franchises for the tournament.

The Hundred definitely does have its merits and the potential to diversify the game’s audience in England. It is a new format to be played professionally by men and women in England that is the most streamlined version of cricket yet. The aim is to break down the traditional barriers that inhibit high levels of participation and viewership in England. The Hundred’s matches are shorter, less balls are bowled and matches completed within two and a half hours, it is easier to follow, spectators track the game through a countdown of balls and accumulation of runs, and the format will be available on free-to-air television.

Plenty of big names were on board with the tournament, including international superstars Jofra Archer and Steve Smith, and players from all over the world put their names forward for the draft. It clearly grabbed the attention of the players, but that may be due to the pay packet of £25,000-£125,000 for 5 weeks work. The broadcasters too have remained dogmatic in their promotion of the tournament. Understandable considering the fact Sky and BBC agreed a £1.1 billion broadcast deal with the ECB in 2017 for the rights to broadcast England’s international and domestic matches, including The Hundred, between 2020 and 2024.

The Hundred was meant to be amongst some of the first live cricket to be broadcasted on free-to-air television regularly since the ECB’s deal with Sky in 2005 worth £220 million for exclusive broadcast rights, which it is largely agreed stunted the viewership of the game as the ECB opted to cash in their chips. The record audience of 8.3 million who tuned into Channel 4 and Sky Sports last July to watch England’s men conquer the World is testament to the game’s appeal when it is removed from behind a paywall, allowing for greater penetration in homes, increasing the game’s appeal.

Fundamentally that is what The Hundred aims to do – increase the game’s appeal and promote it to a new and more diverse audience. Whilst ticket sales increased last year, with the ECB reporting that 3.15 million people attended international and domestic matches last summer, an 18 percent increase on the previous record set in 2017, there is a diversity crisis amongst the game’s English audience.

Cricket in England has a white, affluent, middle-aged and male audience. The statistics prove this as the average age of an English cricket fan is 50, and only 5% of children aged between 7 and 15 years old list cricket in their top two favourite sports.

The Hundred is a novel attempt by the ECB to address these issues and grow the game amongst those communities not typically associated with it, but those in the driving seat know it will not reap rewards on its own. The tournament was launched in conjunction with 25 other initiatives as part of the 5-year campaign ‘Inspiring Generations’, which aims to increase the awareness levels of the game and get more people chatting, watching, following and falling in love with cricket. The campaign is focused on the younger generation and promoting the game within schools over the cricket season beginning this year. COVID-19 has of course had something to say about that though.

The Hundred does have great potential, and demonstrates great ambition by the ECB to address the diversity crisis amongst the English audience that ultimately inhibits the game’s growth. However, given the tournament has faced condemnation from the cricketing press over its ‘gimmicky’ format, backlash from Anti-Obesity alliance over its decision to have KP snacks as its main sponsor, a year-long postponement, and all participating players’ contracts terminated, The Hundred has made for some bad headlines.

If it does manage to get off the ground next year it could well be the next step in the game’s transition towards modernity taking the baton on from Twenty20 which, despite the naysayers, has been a rip-roaring success since 2003. The ECB will certainly hope The Hundred, alongside the ‘Inspiring Generations’ campaign, can go one step further and help diversify the game’s audience.

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