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Selling off the summer? Why Hundred plans should matter to all cricket lovers | Barney Ronay
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Selling off the summer? Why Hundred plans should matter to all cricket lovers | Barney Ronay

Why should anyone be worried about the England and Wales Cricket Board’s plan to sell its stake in the eight Hundred franchise teams to private investors? A deadline for counties to agree to a “direction of travel” on this issue has been set for Friday. The governing body’s preferred direction appears clear enough. The intention seems to be to sell English cricket’s chief domestic revenue levers as quickly as possible. Most likely this will be to the existing owners of Indian Premier League franchises. IPL owners already have teams in the US, the United Arab Emirates and South Africa. So why not here?

To date nobody with any kind of platform in the game seems overly concerned about this prospect. We have seen no breaking of ranks among administrators, no big‑ticket media names pointing to the potential pitfalls, no European Super League-style protests on the streets.

So maybe it’s just fine. County cricket is broke. Private equity is rich. It sounds like a natural fit, like hammers and nails, predator and prey, greed and hubris. This is “money coming into the game”, to use the generically evasive phrase. And who doesn’t like money? So why does it feel like what is happening here is the first step in outsourcing the English cricket summer, in privatising the month of August? Welcome to Selling England By The Pound, Part 74: Domestic Cricket. At the very least, we need to talk about this.

It is a complex process, but one that involves a pretty simple first step. Under the current proposals the ECB would sell its 49% stake in all eight Hundred teams. This was initially advertised as just 30%. Two weeks before Friday’s meeting the ECB upped this to the full stake. It seems potential buyers will want the lot. Investment without control is a much less interesting deal. This is an important detail. Under this arrangement the eight host counties will retain a 51% stake in their in-house franchise. Anti‑alarmists will point to this, rightly, as evidence that control is not being ceded. The counties still have the majority share. It’s all fine.

On the other hand, it is also hard to imagine how this will remain the case. Private equity is rich. County cricket clubs are poor. Venture capitalists don’t really want a 49% share in anything. They want to control the direction of their investment, and to do so without interference from Sir Bufton Ballsack, who may well be a stalwart of the county board but knows very little about harvesting eyeballs. How many counties, outside of Surrey, are in a position to resist the lure of free money in return for conceding the casting vote?

Never mind, though. The ECB still owns the actual competition! At least, in so much as the competition exists outside the teams that play in it. Like the UK government, it still owns the track and points. It’s just the trains that other people get to run. And look how well that’s worked out. Bring on the Avanti West Coast Invincibles.

Phil Salt and Wayne Madsen of Manchester Originals. View image in fullscreen

The ECB is not a public body, but privatisation is still a useful model here. The ECB is the keeper of our shared sporting heritage. It also receives public funding. As such it should be open to public scrutiny. When the veteran Labour MP John Spellar says the government should call the ECB in to review this process, he may not be speaking as a cricket man, but he does know where the sale of assets to private equity can lead. The football governance bill will regulate the sale and ownership of football clubs. Cricket has no equivalent oversight. Why not?

It is unsurprising there is already a fracture in consensus among the counties over all this. The word is there may be no agreement by Friday. The non-host counties, also known as first turkeys on the Christmas meat hook, have begun to question the deal being offered. There are windfalls and annual stipends to be divvied up. Money is being grubbed over. The heirs are gathered around the casket, arguing over the silver.

What about future investment, scheduling, facilities, conflicts of interest between national game, pathways, inclusion and the pure profit motives of a private company? Is the ECB not obliged by its basic constitution to provide protection against the takeover of the cricket calendar by franchises with an eye on global dominance? As opposed to acting as a paid facilitator? Who, right now, knows the answer to any of these things (answer: nobody)?

One problem is the obvious impediments to holding any kind of objective discussion. First the Hundred itself is an endlessly divisive entity. The good bits are clear enough. The Hundred was designed to expand the game’s reach and source newer, younger consumers. These are logical aims. Given the ECB’s own record of failure in growing the game, something had to be done. The Hundred offered the chance of a reset, for women’s teams to be given status, visibility and investment, for the junking of some old restrictive habits.

The problem is the collateral damage to all the other bits. The Hundred is unavoidably parasitic. It requires every other format to be subjugated and run down, although part of this is a deliberate managed decline to ensure its own success. People who have supported the game and kept it alive like the other formats. Test cricket is still the greatest cash cow. It is currently being asked to subsidise the thing that will cut its legs off, a Hundred that provides no players, no pathway, no midsummer stage in return.

The other problem is the ECB itself, a governing body run for so many years like a mercurial get-rich scheme, which relies on public wealth, the shared game, to produce its only assets, but still seems intent on chasing growth, eyeballs, fire sales and the most buzzword-laden version of sports capitalism. Is the sale of the Hundred franchises even with the spirit of the ECB’s remit? Its governing articles state that the ECB’s aims are to act as the governing body for cricket, to do so for the benefit of all stakeholders, to balance short‑term consequences with long-term benefit, and to promote “the commercialisation, marketing and promotion of cricket”.

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Well, one of these (clue: it’s the last one) is definitely the preferred option. But there are still questions to be asked. What do investors want, and why are they interested in your product? The ECB’s chosen buyer-locator is the Raine Group, whose last job in English football was introducing Chelsea to Todd Boehly. These people are not always benevolent actors. It is also worth considering why English cricket is broke when it has also never been so rich, when it can afford to pay a star player half a million pounds for playing four games a year. Where will the new money actually go, other than into debt, and the servicing of more debt?

Hence the need for basic scrutiny. One Labour MP has already suggested this process should take place in daylight. Here are some very obvious questions the ECB would do well to address before speeding ahead. The sale of Hundred franchises has been presented as an obvious net positive for English cricket. Does the ECB accept that this is also a profound existential change for domestic game? Where is the feasibility study on exactly how this could look in 10 years? What indication is there that Hundred host counties won’t instantly sell their controlling vote to the new minority investor? What is the view on the potential effects?

Labour MP John Spellar.View image in fullscreen

If this asset is worth so much money, why is the ECB selling it? Outside investors may have more instant cash. Why isn’t the ECB able to monetise this while retaining control? What study has been made into the medium-term effects on non-host counties? What will be the role of, say Kent CCC, in 10 years’ time? English cricket has a lot of money and a lot of debt. Where will this new money go? Where is the evidence of how it will be spent?

Has the self interest of players, agents, broadcasters and all interested parties with a platform been excluded from consideration of the merits or otherwise of this course of action? What due diligence will be done on prospective new owners? Will you consider the motives of your buyer? Is this a material factor in the sale, or is it just the highest price?

These are all questions the ECB will, it is to be hoped, already be asking itself. A great deal more than the ever-embattled present is at stake.

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Source: theguardian.com