Winning the ICC Cricket World Cup: A commercial tipping point or a red herring for the ECB?
Alex Charkham, Head of Strategy at Fuse, discusses the effect England winning the ICC Cricket World Cup will have on the England and Wales Cricket Board
2019 was tipped to be the year that English men’s one-day cricket would finally emerge from three decades of utter mediocrity. And, despite English team sport generally flattering to deceive on the big stage, this England side somehow bucked the trend and won the World Cup in front of 8.3m people. Glorious.
This is cricket’s summer of plenty. The perfect platform for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to propel cricket to the forefront of public consciousness in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Ashes series of 2005 (the last time cricket was available on free-to-air TV).
But can the ECB maintain the momentum in way that will see the game survive and thrive on and off the pitch beyond this summer?
Much of the focus has been on how the ECB will capitalise upon England’s victory to safeguard the game’s future. Although there are 2.5m reported amateur players in England and Wales, only 7% of primary school children play cricket and the number of people aged over 16 who play at least once a fortnight has fallen by 20% in the last three years (according to the ECB and Sport England). Through Inspiring Generations, ECB’s £770m investment into the future of the game, there is a clear blueprint for the future of the game. Time will tell whether the plans bear fruit.
What has received less attention, however, is how the ECB will capitalise upon this window of opportunity to take their commercial proposition to the next level. Put simply, is England’s success likely to lead to an influx of commercial interest in cricket, especially with the launch of The Hundred next season? And, is the ECB ready to manage the demand while making each partner feel valued across an increasing roster of domestic and international properties?
Perceived versus actual value
The prevailing narrative since the World Cup final has been one of optimism, positivity and increased profile for English cricket. And why not? It’s not often England win an international team competition in a sport they invent.
When assessing the commercial opportunity as a potential brand partner, however, it’s important to distinguish between profile and commercial viability. As world champions, England’s profile has certainly increased, but this doesn’t automatically imply that their value will follow the same path.
By way of example, the audience for the ICC Cricket World Cup final averaged 4m, largely due to the Sky and Channel 4 co-broadcast (the latter being the first free-to-air cricket broadcast since 2005). Compare that to the five-match ECB managed series against Pakistan in the build up to the World Cup, broadcast only on Sky, where the audience average was just under 300,000.
Audience is the highest driver of value when it comes to brand and rights holder partnerships. The ECB’s perceived value may have increased due to England’s high profile, but its ability to drive incremental partner value is intrinsically linked to its ability to build its audience base.
From 2020, the ECB will revise its ODI broadcast model by moving England match highlights from Channel 5 to the BBC. This is expected to produce an uplift in audiences watching highlights after each game. However, the World Cup demonstrated the power of being in the moment. With Sky retaining live broadcast rights for men’s and women’s cricket from 2020, it’s difficult to see viewership numbers for live cricket significantly increasing in the short term.
What I’d like to see from the ECB
The next five-year broadcast cycle starts in 2020, so unless some rights or announcements have been held back, it’s difficult to envisage changes to the current Sky/BBC model. However, given the ambition laid forth in the Inspiring Generations strategy, I’d like to see the emphasis on growth and accessibility applied to broadcast.
As such, the ECB should consider innovating in the same way as other leading rights holders, particularly in the ‘over the top‘ (OTT) space. By way of example, the Premier League have granted Amazon the exclusive rights to broadcast two live match weeks in December this year. In this way, rights holders are actively seeking to balance the need to engage new audiences while maintaining relationships (and revenue) amongst their traditional base.
Tip for brands
Don’t get carried away with the emotional narrative and allow the intangibility of being world champion inflate a potential deal. It’s key to undertake a fully independent, objective and fact-based analysis to determine value and inform rights investment.
What will be the impact on The Hundred?
“It’s inspired derision and division, rancour and remorse, apprehension and – it’s fair to say – a good deal of excitement too.” Jonathan Liew, The Independent
England’s World Cup victory stemmed from a radical shift in approach to the shorter form of the game after a dismal showing in Australia and New Zealand four years ago. The ECB can therefore take confidence into its next great experiment, The Hundred, (a twist on the current Twenty20 format), which will launch next summer.
According to ECB boss Tom Harrison, the new tournament is “a huge opportunity if we do things a bit differently to get hold of a much wider audience”. Unlike England international fixtures, the ECB has guaranteed “live packages” for the BBC when the tournament lands. Outside of this, little is still known about the tournament that starts in a year’s time.
Despite being ‘new’, however, the Indian Premier League and Australian Big Bash provide excellent benchmarks from which to build. Interestingly, the advent of the Big Bash in 2011 contributed to cricket resuming number one participation sport in Australia (according to the last census in 2016). Perhaps more significantly, 40% of the tournament audience is female.
The roster of sponsors also reflects the way the Big Bash has attracted new audiences. The list includes brands from lifestyle clothing to banking, fast food, cereal and chewing gum. By way of comparison, ECB’s current partner portfolio comprises traditional partner sectors such as banking, insurance, wine, beer and automotive.
Overall, The Hundred is destined to be a commercial success. Despite the large dose of English cynicism that has followed the tournament throughout its inception, it has all the core ingredients that brands crave – a men’s and women’s format, the world’s best players (to include England’s World Cup winners) high reach, excitement, novelty, youth and a smidge of bravado. KP snacks, the first official partner to be announced, will doubtless trigger more interest and further deal-making.
The novelty factor should also play into sponsors’ hands because the proposition will be based on forecast (versus historic) impact. This should enable prospective partners to negotiate hard because there are so many unknowns.
Tip for brands
This is definitely a case of ‘the early bird catches the worm’. Those that go early, such as KP snacks, have the opportunity to be a founding partner while locking in a good price that will likely inflate as the seasons go by.
What will be the impact on other ECB properties?
The addition of the Hundred will be both a help and a hindrance for the ECB. Between the Vitality T20 Blast & International Series, Royal London One Day International Series & One Day Cup and Specsavers Ashes Series & County Championship, not to mention NatWest’s shirt deal with the England men and women’s team, the heavy sponsor clutter around cricket will increase with the addition of a new competition.
Similarly, one of cricket’s great challenges lies in its complexity stemming from a multitude of formats, domestic and international, crammed into six-month window. This already includes domestic four-day, one-day and T20 competitions alongside international tests, one day matches and T20s.
The domestic game in particular is nigh-on-impossible to follow as a fan which creates a huge barrier to entry. With an ever-evolving calendar, it simply doesn’t have the rhythm and routine predictability of, say, the Premier League football calendar.
Commercially, the ECB will need to work harder than ever to ensure that their main partners, whether at domestic or international level, will feel like they have pride of place. And all this while trying to launch a new format/prove a new concept that has the potential to draw the biggest audience of them all.
What I’d like to see from the ECB
Rights package innovation, particularly in digital and data, to enable partners to feel like they each have exclusive opportunities.
Tip for brands
If there are concerns around any of these issues, don’t be afraid to request accountability measures as part of any agreement. This can include things like performance KPIs linked to the rights fee to ensure both parties are focused on achieving mutually agreed tasks.
In conclusion, England winning the World Cup is the ultimate gift for long-suffering cricket fans and authorities alike. It provides impetus, instills confidence and attracts attention from a multitude of potential revenue sources. However, England’s victory alone is not going to deliver commercial success in the long term. The ECB’s commercial viability is contingent upon its ability to move forward at pace while continuing to grow its audience. The Inspiring Generations strategy is a blueprint for success at a participation level, but its chance of success will diminish unless the game is made more accessible at a fan level.
The Hundred may yet prove to be the silver bullet, particularly with its free-to-air component. However, the World Cup reminded us that the national team (particularly a successful one) is the ultimate draw. The fact remains that live access to England matches currently sits behind a pay wall. There are of course revenue implications to consider here, but with a multitude of broadcast solutions now on the table (e.g. OTT), you just wonder whether the ECB have missed a trick by putting all their eggs in The Hundred’s basket.
Alex Charkham, Head of Strategy, Fuse.
Read more from Alex and the Data & Strategy team at Fuse here.