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ECB hopes Cricket World Cup momentum fuels enthusiasm for The Hundred

The 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup has demonstrated that there is a significant market for the ECB's new competition, The Hundred, according to its managing director, Sanjay Patel. He tells Adam Nelson how the ECB intends to capitalise on England's stunning World Cup victory and extend the sport's moment in the sun well beyond this summer.

  • ECB has conducted four years of research into every aspect of The Hundred, from the competition format to the brand identities of the teams involved
  • ECB believes Cricket World Cup audiences are evidence of a new fanbase ready to be engaged with a new high-profile tournament
  • Britain’s South Asian diaspora and families are the ECB’s two key target demographics for The Hundred

The 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup has demonstrated that there is a significant market for the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) new competition, The Hundred, according to its managing director, Sanjay Patel.

For better or worse, cricket in England is a sport of traditions and The Hundred has attracted controversy among purists since it was officially announced in 2018. It represents not only a major shift in cricket’s format – ten-ball overs rather than six – but rips up the centuries-old model of teams representing counties, instead introducing eight city-based ‘franchises’, and throws another competition into a crowded domestic cricket calendar which already includes the County Championship, One-Day Cup and T20 Blast tournaments being played alongside international tours.

The ECB has been bullish in the face of sustained criticism, insisting that its simplified new tournament will ultimately please everyone, from the cricket casuals to the game’s die-hard supporters, while making clear that The Hundred is being set up to fulfil a specific market demand. Speaking at the Sports Decision Makers Summit in London this month, ECB chief commercial officer Tony Singh explained that there are “about 10 million people in this country who would self-describe as cricket fans, but only between one-and-a-half and two million people who are actively engaged with the sport. So there’s quite a big gap where our current product portfolio isn’t quite resonating as much as it should be.”

Indian fans turned out in force for all of their team’s games during the ICC Cricket World Cup, an audience the ECB is desperate to reach out to for The Hundred

The ECB believes that the World Cup has shown that gap can be bridged. “We’re particularly interested in the family audience, we’ve got an emphasis on youth, and we want to attract the South Asian cricket fans,” says Patel. “Across this World Cup, it’s really been a proof of concept of that audience we knew was out there. We’ve seen families coming to games, we’ve seen younger audiences, and we’ve seen 23,000 Indian fans fill the Oval to watch their team play Australia.”

Of those 23,000, ECB data suggests that as many 20,000 are resident in the UK. “That’s a market that, traditionally, English domestic cricket has struggled to harness. We want to see all 20,000 of those fans back at the Oval for The Hundred next year.”

Research-driven decisions

England’s success in the World Cup, being crowned world champions for the first time after what was widely acknowledged as the greatest final of all time, has only increased the pressure on the ECB. A peak TV viewership of 8.3m, after Sky Sports decided to make the final free-to-air via Channel 4, offered some evidence that a mass audience remains for exciting cricket. But it is awkward for the ECB that that they were tuning in to watch England become world champions in the 50-over format, which the ECB will relegate to developmental status domestically from next year.

The hundred-ball format – equivalent to 16.4 overs in old money – was devised after a period of research which began over four years ago as part of the ECB’s strategy for growing cricket between 2015 and hosting the World Cup in 2019.

Patel says it is the ECB’s largest research project ever, engaging in quantitative and qualitative work with over 100,000 people from across the spectrum of cricket fandom, and drawing on a vast range of third-party sources. “The International Cricket Council did a piece of research in the UK which was really interesting and told us a lot about international fans here,” says Patel. “We looked at YouGov surveys, United Nations research, data from Sport England. We’ve really gone to a broad range to ensure what we’re doing is the best course of action for English cricket.”

While a lot of work was done to “better understand the core cricket fan”, says Patel, the primary focus of the ECB’s research ahead of The Hundred has been on casual fans of the game.

“We know there’s a big audience of people out there who like cricket, but they don’t follow or attend it as often as we’d like them to,” he says. “Maybe they would come into the game every 18 months through the Ashes, or every four years through the World Cup, or maybe they follow the IPL [Indian Premier League] or the Big Bash [Australia’s premier domestic T20 competition] but they haven’t tended to get involved in domestic cricket. We had to ask ourselves: why not? So we carried out the research, and The Hundred, we think, is a format that will bring those crowds out.”

Coming up with the new format was, he says, the relatively straight-forward part. Across nearly all demographics, audiences wanted three things: shorter games (particularly families, who struggle with devoting a day or a few days at a time for an ODI or Test match); a more understandable and simplified scoring system; and more exciting, fast-paced action. The latter, says Patel, was especially true for the South Asian audience.

Those factors hardly seem like rocket science – more or less the same motivations were given for the launch of the T20 Blast competition back in 2003 – but Patel says that the success of the tournament will ultimately rest on getting the marketing and positioning of the competition right. The ECB’s research will again play an essential role in promoting the tournament.

“It’s about your messaging, it’s about how you present and hone in on the audiences you want to target,” he says. As well as drawing on that vast range of sport-related research, the ECB has also been working closely with Disney as part of its efforts to target families, particularly on the marketing front. “They’ve obviously got insights around families that they’ve been garnering for years and years and years. Firstly, we want to make sure we’re getting our marketing right in terms of getting families in, how we promote to them and strike the right tone. Then once they’re in the ground, how do you keep engaging them, what kind of experience do they need to have? It was just a case of us trying to learn as much as we can from them.”

Early marketing materials for The Hundred have leaned heavily on the family aspect, and the competition has been scheduled to take place during the British summer school holiday, which runs from July to early September, to maximise the opportunities for families to attend matches.

Early marketing materials for The Hundred have been aimed at a young audience

The ECB has also foregrounded the fact that the women’s competition will be played alongside the men’s, on an equal footing. “I think that’s incredibly important for both younger audiences and families,” says Patel. “I think young people now…don’t even really think in terms of male/female, so there’s a huge opportunity just to capture that audience as well as to grow women’s cricket and women’s sport more generally.

“We also know that women’s sport tends to attract the family audience more, so it makes perfect sense for us to promote it equally. We want to be able to say, ‘look, there are two games of absolute top-quality cricket on, it doesn’t matter which you come to, men’s or women’s, you’ll have the same experience at both.”

The ECB is still working out the scheduling around this, but Patel confirmed that some big clashes between rival teams are likely to be played as double-headers, with the women’s fixture following straight on from the men’s, or vice-versa.

Regional identities

The ECB’s research underpins the locations and brand identities of the eight teams involved. Seven UK cities are represented in total, with London hosting two teams, at the Oval and Lord’s. Each team will have “completely new identities, so they have no baggage and they’re separate from the traditional county sides,” says Patel, who asserts that county identity has lost its resonance and that young people identify a lot more closely with their home cities than counties. The cities were chosen to offer maximum opportunity to engage with the target audiences across the UK, and their identities developed in order to appeal to the key demographics in each city.

Of the Manchester Originals, who will be based at the Old Trafford cricket ground, Patel says: “We spent a lot of time with 16-to-24-year-olds in Manchester. We wanted to understand what Manchester means to them, what it means to be from Manchester. What is the youth culture there? How do they want to see their city represented? And then all of that will be put back into the thinking around how we bring the team identity to life in Manchester.

“We have seven very different cities lined up to compete. We’ll think about the demographics, and tailor our marketing toward who we’ll really look to bring into the ground. So when we think about that South Asian audience, we’ll have more emphasis on them in London, Birmingham and Manchester, because we know that within a 30-mile radius of those grounds there are huge numbers of South Asian fans. That’s different to Cardiff, where we will focus more on the family audiences.”

The move to city franchises has proved the most controversial aspect of The Hundred among the game’s stakeholders. While all 18 first-class counties have now signed up to The Hundred in principle, negotiations are ongoing over the financial compensation they will receive. With one of their major revenue-generators, the One-Day Cup, set to become a developmental competition from 2020 onwards, and another, the T20 Blast, likely to be marginalised by the launch of The Hundred, the counties are arguing that they require a greater financial contribution from the ECB – particularly considering the governing body’s £1.1bn five-year broadcasting rights deal with Sky and the BBC. Additionally, the ten counties whose grounds will not host a Hundred team – including seven-times County Championship winners Essex and three-times winners Durham – will miss out on gate receipts and other match-day revenues.

As it stands, each of the 18 counties is set to receive £1.3m annually for an initial five years, but are asking for a further £27m collectively over that period to make up for shortfalls elsewhere and to help secure their futures.

The positioning of the teams has also proven a tightrope for the ECB to walk. Its initial research pointed towards naming the Leeds-based team after the city itself (England’s third-largest urban area with a huge South Asian population who strongly identify with the city), but a backlash from fans across Yorkshire and County Durham led to an early name change, to the Northern Superchargers.

And while the Cardiff-based Welsh Fire will represent the Welsh county of Glamorgan, it is also supposed to represent the two English counties of Gloucestershire and Somerset, neither of which have a team competing in The Hundred. Early reports suggested the team would include ‘Western’ rather than ‘Welsh’, but for now the ECB appears to be sticking to its guns and retaining the Welsh Fire name – perhaps in an effort to greater appeal to the Cardiff public, the area Patel admits poses the greatest challenge.

Cricket makes free-to-air return

While fans in the seven cities will be directly targeted with tailored campaigns and bespoke brand identities, the broadcast audience presents a different hurdle to the ECB. The Hundred already has broadcast partnerships in place with the BBC and Sky, with the latter set to show every game live, while the former will show 10 men’s games and eight women’s games live, marking a significant return to free-to-air television for cricket in the UK. That in itself is a major step for The Hundred, with almost all top-level cricket in the country having been behind the Sky Sports paywall since the middle of the last decade.

Those deals will be leveraged to their fullest extent. Patel says they are being treated “as real partnerships, not just us giving them the rights to some content.” The BBC and Sky, he adds, “are both fully engaged in conversations around other ways to make The Hundred more visible and are really backing the tournament.”

The platform offered by the BBC, in particular, is something the ECB is keen to take advantage of. Conversations have already taken place over utilising assets such as The One Show– the BBC’s flagship daily magazine and chat show – and Radio 1Breakfast, both of which regularly command audiences of over five million, as ways to target and appeal to the family demographic. “We’ve also had discussions about how we can use the BBC Asian Network, which is something we’re going to do to talk to that audience,” adds Patel. The ECB expects players and team coaches to make appearances on shows when promotion for The Hundred ramps up in spring 2020. “It’s about using as many different platforms and opportunities as possible to engage with potential cricket fans,” he says.

The ECB is hoping to carry the momentum from England’s World Cup win on home soil into next summer’s new tournament

The digital channels of the broadcast partners, as well as those of the ECB, will also play a significant role. “A major part of the qualitative research we did was a piece of diary work, following a group of young people for two weeks,” Patel notes. “We wanted to understand more about their lives, understand their connection with cricket, and then how we can fit cricket into their lives.”

It was not revelatory to learn that this meant focusing heavily on the digital space, but again, Patel says there was lots to learn about precisely how to integrate cricket into young people’s lives in an organic way. The Hundred’s countdown format will make it easier than any previous variation of cricket to follow on a mobile device, he says, and will also hopefully produce more “exciting, shareable moments” that people will want to send to their friends and which can be quickly consumed on the move. The ECB will allow the teams to share highlights from matches as they are happening to help build engagement, particularly with younger audiences, something for which it has won praise from the teams in the County Championship.

England’s World Cup win has presented the ECB with an opportunity it could scarcely have dreamed it would receive, with English cricket basking in its highest-profile moment since the 2005 Ashes. If the ECB can achieve the right marketing mix and take full advantage of its media rights deals, it may be able to ensure that moment endures well beyond this summer.

Read this: Free-to-air exposure brings new audiences to cricket, but F1 and Wimbledon continue to deliver

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