Save Our Counties: Against Franchise T20

At the end of July, The Daily Telegraph‘s Nick Hoult broke the story that the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is to propose a city-based franchise T20 tournament to the 18 first-class counties in what he dubbed “English cricket’s most radical ever overhaul.”

Whilst several high-profile current and former players, such as Michael Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen and Alex Hales have all argued that a franchise tournament is necessary to raise the standing of cricket in English sport, as well as to improve the standard of the England white-ball sides, there has also been a great deal of opposition from within the game.

Indeed, Somerset supporter Malcolm Spencer has felt so moved in his opposition to the potential change, that he has set up a movement against T20 franchises, which he calls Save Our Counties.

We spoke to him about his arguments against an ‘English Premier League’.

Q: What are the main reasons behind your opposition to a franchise Twenty20 tournament in England?

In the coming months County Cricket clubs across the country are set to face some seismic changes that, if unsuccessful, could ultimately lead to their demise.

Far worse than that, as counties are ‘membership clubs’, the ECB has a legal responsibility to act on behalf of its members and, so far to date, they appear to have excluded them entirely from their discussions and plans.

Aware that they require two-thirds of the county boards to side with their proposals they have now gone as far as to insist all county CEOs sign a non-disclosure agreement before participating in any discussions.

It is for that reason, I felt compelled to put our side of the argument to the wider public and gather together the thoughts and opinions of those that keep the game alive: the fans!

Q: Do you feel as though ECB chiefs Colin Graves and Tom Harrison have been seduced by the success of the IPL [Indian Premier League] and Australia’s Big Bash?

Graves and Harrison say they are keen to create a new competition here in England as the latest “fix” for the venerable financial situation and poor attendances amongst some clubs.

While we have no objection whatsoever to the process of modernising and progressing the game across all platforms, it is our belief that this scheme is poorly conceived, misguided and ultimately damaging to the very entities it is appointed to protect.

There is no doubting the huge audiences, vast revenues and substantial fan base of tournaments like the Big Bash have a magnetic effect but there are some very key differences between their competition and that “proposed” by the ECB.

Q: The proposed franchise tournament has been compared with Cricket Australia’s introduction of the BBL [Big Bash League] in 2011. Could you outline why you believe the two situations are so distinct?

The ECB is keen to compare the proposed tournament with the Big Bash and regularly cites their competition as a reason to go ahead. However:

The ECB state they wish to “condense” the teams from 18 counties to eight cities, in a move they think will push the best players to the top, whereas the BBL actually increased their number of teams from six to eight in 2011.

Crowds have flocked to BBL games in Australia, but there is no guarantee they would in England

Whereas the BBL is played in areas in which over 60% of the population live, an eight-city team league in England would have a catchment of less than 25% of the population.

The BBL is televised on free-to-air TV at prime time, whereas the ECB tournament would be on pay-to-view TV with the exception of one live game per week, according to Hoult’s Telegraph piece.

Q: But a franchise tournament would be able to attract the best overseas players to English cricket, wouldn’t it?

The ECB and supporters of the city league say that having the best overseas players in each team would promote youth player development.

This is an argument in which we find little sense. The “guns for hire” that travel the world playing in these competitions, whilst hugely exciting, cannot be aligned with the suggestion that they promote development. Is it likely that a player who makes his income participating in such tournaments would genuinely be thrilled to see his spot in the team taken by those developed within the system?

Chris Gayle appeared for Somerset in 2015 and 2016

Furthermore, it is wide of the mark to suggest that the current T20 Blast fails to attract big names. Indeed, six of the ICC’s top ten ranked T20 batsmen in the world appeared in this season’s tournament, and one of the four that didn’t – Virat Kohli – would be unavailable regardless as the BCCI does not allow its players to appear in overseas domestic leagues.

With Dale Steyn, Shahid Afridi, Kagiso Rabada, Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum, Andre Russell, Chris Gayle, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Dwayne Bravo and Aaron Finch all making Blast appearances in 2016, it is difficult to suggest that there would be a huge difference in the quality of foreign stars if a city-based tournament were to happen. And whilst not all of those players have spent a full season in county cricket on account of the current tournament’s prolonged nature, the 2017 edition is to be played in a five-week block, meaning the top names will be available for a much higher percentage of their counties’ matches.

Q: Would county fans be willing to support a franchise team instead of their current side?

A recent study, conducted on behalf of the ECB, concluded that the vast majority of cricket fans align themselves with a county and do not wish to switch their allegiance to a city-based team.

Ignoring for a moment the 150 years of tradition, there is no evidence to suggest that fans will make the move – both physically and emotionally – to the new system. The only team in the county currently re-branded as a city (Birmingham Bears) has the lowest fan support on Facebook of all 18 teams.

Q: There has been a suggestion that a City League could run alongside the current T20 Blast to appease counties. How might that work?

As ridiculous as it sounds, it would be something like this.

Let’s take Surrey as our example.

As a host venue in the new franchise tournament, their best players would make up some of the new team. Others would come from the surrounding counties (Middlesex, Essex etc).

Those players not selected would now join the county T20 playing for a different team, alongside others who didn’t make the grade.

Players like Surrey’s Rory Burns might not earn a franchise contract

This “lesser” league would run at the same time as the new City League, leaving existing fans with the following choices:

  1. Travel to your nearest City venue and support your new City team
  2. Watch your new County side (with the best players missing)
  3. Attempt to find the money to do both

In reality, the argument comes down to the gamble that fans, TV broadcasters and the wider public will take to the new format.

Should it fail to attract the new fan base and revenue, counties like Somerset, Essex, Kent, and Sussex (to name but four) would find themselves promoting a local competition to their supporters devoid of their best players in stark contrast to the sell-out audiences they currently attract to the T20 Blast.

Q: So who is in favour of the new competition?

Those who appear to be in favour fall into one or more of the following three categories:

  1. The sides likely to be hosts in the new competition
  2. Those have poor existing attendance figures
  3. Teams with financial issues who are reliant on the ECB for bail-outs.

Our vision is for a competition that includes all of the 18 counties, split into 2 leagues with promotion and relegation battles.

Audiences have been steadily growing amongst those clubs with fantastic local connection to their fans and a well-administered marketing campaign.

The problems of some must not be allowed to destroy the prosperity and enjoyment of the many.

Q: How can readers get involved with the campaign against franchise T20?

There are several ways to get involved. Please sign the petition, like us on Facebook, follow the campaign on Twitter or visit our website.