Growth and Evolution in Cricket Must Embrace Loyal Members or Fail

county crowds watch their teams

Tony Bishop

Groucho Marx famously quipped "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member". He had resigned from one and this was his response to a letter from that club's president to ask him why.

County Cricket Club members by contrast want to be accepted, to feel a part of their club, acknowledged, communicated with and valued. That is certainly the findings from the research of the Cricket Supporters Association. And you would think, in such trying times as these, the clubs would cherish, nurture and grow their membership base. However, is that always the case?

Speaking first hand as a County Member, I feel that my own County, Middlesex, does a pretty good job of providing the best value it can for the membership subs I pay. Communication is regular, information well delivered, access to tickets well managed and the Home of Cricket and its magnificent Pavilion are not at all a bad places to visit regularly, even if performances of late have disappointed rather than enthused. There is also plenty of opportunity to meet the players and attend social functions, plus crucially, voting rights for Middlesex affairs. Of course, like nearly all County Cricket devotees, I want to see more red ball cricket in August, but the dearth of that is not something to lay at the door of the Counties.

The Lancashire Action Group, whose founder Ian Lomax I interviewed recently do not feel so valued at Old Trafford. Since 2014 they have waged a campaign focused on having elected member board representation and members nominated onto the club's Members Representative Group (MRG). Ian makes a persuasive case the value of which you can judge by listening.

The Lancashire Action Group conducted a survey in partnership with the Cricket Supporters Association where 98% of respondents supported the two specific goals of being able to elect people onto the MRG and to being allowed to elect up to two members to the board. Lancashire discussed the matter with their MRG in August but in October declined the proposal.

It would be easy to see this as a local issue relating as it does to just one of the 18 Counties. However, it raises the vital question of just how important members are to their clubs? Given that the majority of clubs are member owned that may seem an odd question, but one that is worth asking given the seismic shifts in the economy not just of cricket, but sport in general.

Broadcast revenues and corporate sponsorship provide a larger part of revenue than memberships. Those clubs that own their own Test match grounds are far better positioned to maximise revenue opportunities on the back of franchise tournaments like the Hundred than those clubs that do not. Their member base is likely to change from loyal regulars to more transitory short form fans.

The economics of the game are fundamentally shifting with franchises dominant in other parts of the world and threatening to become so in England and Wales. Consider the IPL. The media rights in 2017 were sold for a mighty $2.6 billion. That figure is likely to be dwarfed when those rights are up for renewal at the end of this year for the now expanded format. Two new franchises have extended the tournament from 8 to 10 teams and those two new franchises were acquired for an eye watering $745mn and $945mn.

The Hundred, of course, is designed to follow a similar model, with its shortened format. It's also marketed to attract a new, younger and more diverse audience to the game (or at least claims those objectives). But whether those new franchise spectators ever truly become loyal club members is highly open to question. The first-class counties received a £1.3 million hand out from it that requires no nurturing of their own fan base, even if they are rightly concerned how little of the 'profits' the tournament has generated they have seen so far, having lost substantial revenues due to the hit to other lucrative competitions.

Ultimately the format is designed to fit more comfortably into tight TV schedules and be marketable to potentially lucrative overseas markets, generating central revenues that even if our County Clubs see a share of, scarcely encourages their investment in members.

Old Trafford, the home of Lancashire is a Test Match stadium and they have had to invest heavily to improve its facilities. At the same time, the Lancashire Action Group points out that membership levels have declined massively from over 13,000 to something around 5,000. A quick look at the membership section on the Lancashire website shows that there is a distinct two-tier membership system, with high rollers paying three times standard fees to enjoy access to views and facilities that other clubs provide within their standard membership.

Surrey and the Oval, by contrast, also offer a range of memberships, but their pricing is far more closely banded and all members have free range of the famous pavilion. They also have a member elected board and member representatives. Their commitment to member value and service has seen membership double in the last ten years from 7,143 in 2012 to 15,000 in 2022.

The Covid pandemic has taught us many things, but from a sporting perspective it has starkly shown that top level sport without fans is a soulless experience. Take them away, the whole experience is devalued. The media rights in the short term sustained the game even without fans present, but ultimately fans, members and supporters have a vital role to play in creating the value of what the broadcasters pay for.

Alan Higham is the Cricket Supporters Association representative for Lancashire and also has a membership with Surrey, so is well placed to opine on the role of members at both clubs. "You can be considerate to fans and pursue revenue growth opportunities in the broader sense" he said. Comparing what appear to be the divergent approaches of Lancashire and Surrey, he was clear that a members group at Surrey was empowered as 'a critical friend'. And a true friend will sometimes tell you what you need to hear for your own good.

The pace and degree of change in cricket has been staggering both on and off the field. The Financial Times recent feature "The Business of Cricket" provides both a well informed and balanced view of the game from a business perspective. Within it, Mathew Engel, former Wisden Almanac editor and cricket writer of great note asks the same central question as we have here. "Whose game, is it? Is its main aim profit, or is the aim of profit to enhance and maintain the game? Fundamentally, is it a sport or a business?"

He likens the financially driven business heads behind the game to "vegans running a butcher's shop. If the business of cricket keeps neglecting cricket, it will just race from one gimmick to the next and, eventually, there will be no business".

I strongly agree with Mathew there and believe that the value of members and fans far exceeds the percentage of their financial contribution. Counties that understand that and build their member relationships will be those that succeed in the long run. Cricket administrators are charged with creating a model where Counties are allowed to do that to the best of their abilities. Alienating your best friends is rarely a successful strategy in life, business or sport.

Find out more about the Cricket Supporters Association here