THE HUNDRED CONUNDRUM
Is The Hundred the ray of shining light cricket needs in England? © Getty
“If you leave with nothing else today please remember this – The Hundred is about growing the game. It’s about giving more people the opportunity to be part of cricket’s future. The Hundred is about growing the game and getting more people to be part of cricket’s future. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
With that, Tom Harrison – top button undone, voice firm, sleeves set to “Tony Blair” – went to take his seat on one of the four stools off stage. There were still 45 minutes left of the briefing in which those charged with running The Hundred set about serenading journalists with facts, figures and the odd anecdote to explain why this fourth format was required and how it was devised. But already we had our rallying cry.
Wednesday saw the hardest soft launch of The Hundred after a press engagement at the start of the year following a presentation to English cricket’s domestic stakeholders of the new competition’s finer points, which were subsequently ratified. This morning at Lord’s, however, there was a font, colour scheme, website (more on that later), date for the player auction (October 20) and, for the purposes of the journalists in the room, data.
After constant pressure to show their research ever since this concept was launched at the start of last summer, the ECB felt comfortable enough to play ball.
Sanjay Patel, managing director of the Hundred, boasted about “one million data points” but said not all of them would be presented in this meeting, hinting he was doing so for the sake of our time. The “research summary” handed out at the end of the meeting featured fewer.
Make no mistake, the numbers presented are authentic and the work of up to 10 years of research. And they are jarring.
Of the 10.5m who follow cricket in England, only 1.1m attended matches in 2018, of which 94% were white and 82% male. The split of demographics is almost nonexistent, but the drop in those following and those attending is worthy of attention alone. By contrast rugby union, which has a similar following, is able to convince five million a year to come through the gates. Cricket is also only getting to 7% of children at primary school age, principally due to the work done by Chance to Shine.
One pillar of The Hundred is “simplicity”, and that was explained by extrapolated research from the ICC which said nine million non-cricket fans would take a greater interest in the game if it were easier to understand. That research consulted 1,000 people above the age of 18 and “401 cricket fans”.
Across the board, cricket is in the top five for sports for an engaged audience. But among kids, that slips to seventh and for those in their teens, when independence comes into play, slumps to 11th. Unsurprisingly, eSports is on the rise for both.
It was at this point the room was asked by Patel if they knew what Fortnite was. Following a handful of nods and ten times as many shrugs, he served the presentation’s first personal anecdote: “Three weeks ago, I was around at my sisters’. We were outside playing football – should have been cricket, apologies! But we couldn’t get my nephew out of the house. Why? Because he was playing Fornite.”
This was not a tedious moan about the effect of games consoles on the youth of today. Instead, Patel saw it was a challenge: “If you don’t interrupt these people in a meaningful way, they’re not going to come into cricket.”
He moved on quickly, but it is worth having a quick look at Fortnite’s charm. It’s vibrant, ever-changing, easy to pick-up and doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It does not take itself seriously as a first-person shooter, nor does it look to impinge on more established products like the Call of Duty franchise. There are positives and negatives for the ECB in that.
Because, really, The Hundred is not trying to just shuffle in at the bottom. It is designed in the hope that it will sit as English cricket’s crown jewel, right in the middle of the public’s conscience, the game’s headline act on free-to-air television, with 11 scheduled fixtures. It’s a format that has not even been played yet is trying to command premium real estate.
Yet again, the line about there being resistance to Twenty20 back in 2003 was trotted out with the usual “but look at it now”. Without wanting to labour on that point too much, club cricketers were playing Twenty20 long before 2003 and at no point was it peddled as the gold standard.
The most optimistic part of the presentation came with a proper nod to the women’s competition. The men’s Hundred will struggle to live up to its “best v best” tag because of international commitments of English Test players, let alone other internationals. But all 22 contracted players for England Women will be available for the duration, along with the very best of the rest of the world.
Beth Barrett-Wild, who is driving the women’s competition, revealed grounds like Taunton, Chelmsford, Hove and New Road will host matches because of their track record of staging women’s internationals, coupled with the unsuitability of bigger international venues putting on these games, and with a view to spreading The Hundred’s reach. The ECB are also trying to push for all of the women’s fixtures to be live streamed for free.
Director of the men’s team, Ashley Giles, waved away concerns that a format with 20 balls fewer than Twenty20 and cannibalising domestic 50-over cricket will have a detrimental impact on performance. He also said it was “rubbish” that The Hundred not being played international would make it irrelevant. “We are not talking about cricket being played in clown suits or stood on your head,” he said.
Perhaps the most revealing part of the presentation came during the Q & A section when it was put to the ECB that the figures they cited for drastic change – the plummeting of the game’s stock across the country, its lack of relevance and the drop in participation – all happened under their watch, even if the problems had been instigated and allowed to fester long before those in the room were involved with the governing body.
Elements like removing cricket from free-to-air made an impact beyond reducing visibility. They also lost out on digital opportunities because of various stipulations within their previously agreed rights packages that prevented things like sharing clips of domestic action on social media when international matches were being broadcast. Those restrictions were amended and there are assurances similar mistakes have not been made with the “game-changing” GBP 1.1 billion broadcast deal struck in 2017.
Ignoring the numbers and spin, there were some salient observations made. There is an appreciation at the organisation that millennial generations understand the power of community and harnessing this could, at the very least, reinvent volunteering for club cricket in the future and drive more engagement among lapsed fans within this age range.
One need only look at the focus and support offered to non-league football clubs such as Dulwich Hamlet to witness this in action and understand its impact. Even political activism, regardless of whichever box gets your cross, has seen a revival through this demographic.
Now, about that website.
Launched a couple of hours before the doors to the ECB boardroom were shut and the lights dimmed, it featured a photo of a largely male crowd which happened to be taken at a concert by American rapper Logic from 2017. Once social media post pointed out the lack of women and children – an audience The Hundred hopes to engage – and then found the stock image used re-purposed countless times in the last two years, it was taken down and replaced by a photo of a girl at a football match. Soon, that too was changed to someone actually at the cricket.
Of course, the damage had been done. Those present in the meeting had cottoned on to the internet finding something awry in the launch site and, throughout the presentation, were keeping tabs on its development. “Staggeringly s***” was one summation from an ECB employee once the meeting had finished. “The aim was to give you guys some context and take you through what we did and why,” said another. “And then someone clocked the picture on the ticket micro-site was some stock shot and all of the above didn’t matter anyway!”
That pretty much sums it up. Even on a day when the ECB had good intentions, a slip of a marketing agency has seen the message diluted and the organisation losing a chunk of the positive online and newspaper coverage they had hoped for.
But this didn’t just happen because someone saw an energetic snap from a gig in Miami and thought to re-purpose it. Faith in the ECB went when existing fans were told The Hundred was not meant for them and that the crowd not familiar with the game – who had not poured their hearts and hard earned cash into the English game – were the most important.
Wednesday was no anomaly. Every presentation of The Hundred, whether behind closed doors or out in the open, will be an upstream swim against public consensus, regardless of how honest Harrison or other spokespeople are when they admit to the mistakes that have been made during this process.
Because actually, The Hundred may set out to achieve a few of its goals by making the game simpler and more accessible. But even if they win every battle from here on, the PR war was lost long ago.