A week of The Hundred: Divisive, gamechanging and bad for debate... what we have learnt so far
SAM MORSHEAD: A week is not long enough to determine if there is legacy in the gamble, nor to come up with any reasonable yardstick for success, but - when it comes to engagement - it is certainly long enough to decide whether it is a failure
The Hundred is a week old, and what have we learnt?
For years, the ECB have promoted the notion that the competition would generate a “new audience” for cricket, engaging a multi-ethnic, multi-gender, cricket-interested chunk of the population. The motivation for this project is both financial and developmental, but by not showing its working - the much-heralded research remains hidden behind lock and key - the governing body left itself wide open to ridicule, speculation and criticism.
A week is certainly not long enough to determine whether or not there is legacy in the gamble, nor to come up with any reasonable yardstick for success, but - when it comes to engagement - it is certainly long enough to decide whether it has been an outright failure. It has not been a failure.
Viewing figures for the tournament are up considerably on what broadcasters would expect from typical domestic fare in England and Wales, and that is not just because of free-to-air exposure.
The opening game of the women’s competition peaked at 2m across BBC and Sky, with the opening men’s game reaching a peak of 2.5m and average viewership of 1.5m across channels and digital platforms. Those figures are startlingly high for domestic cricket, with one industry insider suggesting there has not been a bigger televised audience for a game in this country since the World Cup final of 2019.
Naturally, broadcasters were delighted with those first two matches, but the numbers have remained high since. Sky have seen peaks of 1m on a Friday evening and, most impressively, 900,000 on a Monday night to see the nailbiter between Trent Rockets and Northern Superchargers. That is well over four times the average Blast audience of 187,000 viewers on Sky this year. Figures from the ECB on Wednesday stated that the competition had reached 8.54m people on TV, of which - the governing body claimed - 3.3m had not watched any live cricket on television previously this year.
The interest has translated into web traffic, too.
Of the world’s primary franchise competitions only the Indian Premier League has bettered The Hundred’s interest levels among UK audiences on Google this year. While the tournament has reached less than half of the volume of searches of the IPL at its peak in April, it has still drawn more web queries than the PSL, Big Bash and CPL. And plenty more than the T20 Blast.
Ben Duckett in action for Welsh Fire
This is not wholly surprising, given the amount of marketing that has been pushed at viewers over the past two months - primetime advertising during the Euro 2020 final is an unheard of development for English domestic cricket - but it is still noteworthy. Even during the height of the Blast, there were between two and three times more Google searches relating to The Hundred among UK users than there were for its T20 cousin.
On The Cricketer’s channels, we’ve seen a considerable uptick in UK audience during the first week of The Hundred, too. Franchise tournaments generally act as a catalyst for increased traffic to our website, but this is primarily subcontinental. Not this time. While Asia has been slow on the uptake - of our content at least - we have seen a surge in engaged audiences between the ages of 25 and 44 in the UK. The female share of that audience is also up considerably: where we would usually expect 15 per cent female visitors, over the past week that figure is above 25 per cent for our Hundred content.
Novelty value will certainly play a part in this, and the size of the live matchday traffic spikes which we saw on days one and two have certainly mellowed, but - for our small website - the conclusions are pretty obvious: The Hundred is engaging a new audience.
That interest has played out into ticket sales since the start of the tournament. There have now been more than 100,000 tickets sold in the seven days since Marizanne Kapp bowled the first ball of The Hundred, and the ECB are extremely confident that their overall target of 60 per cent of capacity being filled this year will be achieved. The governing body was optimistic about this admittedly modest target prior to the competition getting under way, but they now feel it is an inevitability, with 83 per cent of tickets sold or allocated.
There has been a surprising amount of cut-through, too, when it comes to crowds identifying with the teams they are at the grounds to watch.
These are eight completely alien entities, with no more history than a bluebottle, branded to look like crisp packets and lumbered with slogans from the W1A cutting room floor (let’s face it, “endlessly curious, with an insatiable appetite for adventure” belongs to Durex, not Southern Brave).
But there is plenty of evidence that supporters are choosing to align with the teams. There has been considerable interest in replica shirts - not cheap at £50 for adults and £45 for kids - with Old Trafford taking more than £40,000 in merchandise sales on its first Hundred matchday (the venue’s shop would typically expect revenues of around £30,000 on major matchdays). And during play, it has been noticeable how “home” fans have backed their “home” team.
Anecdotally, among this correspondent’s family and friends, the competition has found traction, too.
My sister and brother-in-law, neither of whom I know to have ever watched an over of cricket before, have already identified themselves as Oval Invincibles fans, have seen every game the teams have played so far, and will be going to two of the club’s remaining matchdays.
There can be little doubt that The Hundred has left a lot of people behind, but the indication is the tournament is also scooping others up.
Smriti Mandhana in action for Southern Brave
The opening night at The Oval was a seismic occasion - not just for its scope, scale and ambition - but for the interest that it generated.
It has been widely detailed that less than 3,000 of the 7,000-plus crowd had paid for their tickets, and there is nothing unfair about that, but it is intrinsically unfair to suggest that the strategy used to populate the south London venue last Wednesday undermined the event.
Around 4.5 per cent of attendees across the competition are expected to be at games on a complimentary basis, which roughly tallies with other sports’ promotional campaigns.
Those young fans inside the ground on Wednesday had to get there in the first place, regardless of whether or not they were there on a freebie, and from what this correspondent saw in the stands and concourses, they were largely engaged - be that by the fireworks and fanfares on or off the pitch.
And they saw a married couple lead their side home in the final over of an entertaining match which was given, for the first time since the 2017 World Cup final, the same billing and stage as the men. It felt like a milestone moment.
The potential benefits to the women’s game need to be given proper consideration by those with concerns over its impact on the men’s county game. It may well be that this is the time for the men’s game to bend to accommodate and then propel the women forward, where for generations it has left them behind.
The equality of exposure for the women in The Hundred is already having an impact on multiple fronts.
Crowds for the women’s games are routinely breaking the 5,000 mark and cumulatively have hit 53,845 so far in the tournament, almost exactly double the figure of 27,000 given by the ECB for the total KSL attendance in 2019. Turnstile figures for these matches are not achieved scientifically, given they form one part of the double-headers, but nonetheless this is a considerable advancement on what the women have come to expect for both domestic and international matches in this country.
On The Cricketer, meanwhile, there has been a stream of interest in the women’s game, in addition to the increased number of female readers visiting the site. Profile pages of domestic players making an impact in the competition are receiving a considerable number of hits in relative terms, a phenomenon which was not achieved by the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy and the Charlotte Edwards Cup.
It’s not clear whether gender parity was a primary driver behind the development of The Hundred, but over time it has become a cornerstone of the tournament’s PR spiel.
Fireworks at Edgbaston
The ECB have made tremendous strides in their promotion of men and women on an equal platform, offering equal prize money and investing equally into the marketing of the two tournaments.
There is good reason for the self-congratulatory trumpeting because of all that, but The Hundred is still far from an equal product.
The highest paid woman takes home less than the lowest paid man - men’s pay brackets range from £24,000 to £100,000, with women receiving between £3,600 and £15,000 - while the Telegraph’s report on the eve of the competition that some of the semi-pros involved in the women’s tournament were not receiving additional support from the ECB, and indeed having to pick between their jobs and taking part in The Hundred, was worrying.
A ticket refund policy which was not suitably updated when the competition switched format to a series of male-female double-headers has also stained the organisers. When the men’s game between London Spirit and Oval Invincibles was washed out on Sunday, all ticket-holders received a full refund despite the women’s game being played to its conclusion: the inference being that the women’s games are valued at £0.
WOMEN'S MATCH ATTENDANCES IN THE HUNDRED Oval Invincibles v Manchester Originals: 7,325 Birmingham Phoenix v London Spirit: 6,317 Trent Rockets v Southern Brave: 5,525 Northern Superchargers v Welsh Fire: 5,026 London Spirit v Oval Invincibles: 13,537 Manchester Originals v Birmingham Phoenix: 7,855 Trent Rockets v Northern Superchargers: 6,721 Welsh Fire v Southern Brave: 1,469
In a statement, the ECB accepted that this policy needs to change.
“We are aware it may not play out this way every match, and with the women's competition securing amazing support from fans, we need to consider if our current approach is now the appropriate one,” the governing body said.
The scheduling of double-headers - with the women playing first and therefore outside the primetime viewing window for those tuning in after work in every single instance - is a matter for discussion, too.
But after week one, it is reasonable to conclude that The Hundred has the capacity to be a gamechanger for women. The question is, was The Hundred the only way of making that possible?
There are arguments that investment in the KSL, aligning that competition with the T20 Blast, and hammering in a sizable amount of marketing spend would have had the same impact. Yet, what is most attractive about The Hundred - the parity of position between men and women - would get lost in split-competition double-headers, not to mention the fact that six regional sides do not go into 18 first-class counties.
The Oval staged both openers
Starting from scratch means those associations between men’s and women’s teams do not have to be forced.
There are genuine concerns for lower down the women’s structure in England and Wales - the county pathway (which has certainly felt excluded by the introduction of regional hubs) and how young players can realistically progress - but the Heyhoe Flint and Charlotte Edwards Cup will offer players a stage to take all the lessons learnt in The Hundred and explore them throughout the year.
It makes sense as a method for delivering high-quality cricketers, and so far it looks like delivering an entertaining cricket product for fans and viewers, too.
So there is a dilemma for the men’s county game, which obviously faces a considerable tipping point.
It seems impractical for the calendar to keep four formats for any length of time, while the incredibly affordable ticket pricing for The Hundred will almost certainly result in some undercutting of the T20 Blast as families of casual cricket fans seek out the best value for money (we will not see the true extent of this until next year, when both competitions will be allowed full capacities for their duration). This is especially true given the demographic of crowds for men’s matches in The Hundred - still largely those who would typically pay for a night out at the Blast.
The anxiety of supporters of ‘smaller’ counties, and those who feel an existential threat to the way of the game in this country is understandable, too, even if we must question ourselves from time to time about the difference between what is best for cricket and what is best for cricket as we know and like it.
The trouble is, the conversation around The Hundred has become so base and so visceral that trying to approach these sorts of topics is becoming increasingly treacherous.
What grates with many sceptics is the shiny sell approach of some within the world of broadcasting. Describing a damp, socially-distanced, 1,000-strong crowd inside Sophia Gardens at 4.45pm on a Tuesday as “a party atmosphere” is stretching the elasticity of the truth to such an extent that it is bound to ping back and slap you on the backside.
Harry Brook of Northern Superchargers
Yet, you can understand the hyperbole given the investment made in the tournament by broadcasters.
The BBC and particularly Sky have bought into this product in a major way. Commercially, it makes little sense to build a multi-million pound platform for the new competition only to voluntarily denigrate it on opening night.
Yes, there are ethical questions to be asked about what journalism actually is, and how it can reasonably persevere with so many commercial interests at play, but this is not a new development; publishers have been grappling with the concept of editorial independence since Caxton’s eureka moment.
The balancing act is not unique to The Hundred - just two years ago, remember, Michael Holding was reprimanded by bosses at Sunset & Vine for the crime of questioning umpiring decisions as part of the ICC host broadcaster’s commentary team for the World Cup - and it is not unique to cricket either.
Absolutely, some of the excess has been galling, but what else did we expect? We all do it. There will be critics of The Hundred who will claim the Blast is among the planet’s elite T20 tournaments - a nigh-on impossible task for an 18-team, 137-game competition - while bemoaning the rampant use of superlatives in the commentary pod. Cognitive dissonance is a distinguishing character trait of the whole Hundred debate, constructive discussion is not.
And both sides are feeding the fire.
At Edgbaston, a banner reading “Forget The Hundred, follow the Bears” was removed by stewards during a Royal London Cup match.
Warwickshire, it is understood, did not want their club badge - which was the focal point of the banner - associated with an “anti-cricket” message. The fans who brought it into the ground with them said they were told “the club wanted us to remove the banner due to the amount of money the ECB have put into The Hundred”.
On social media, the hostility towards the tournament remains considerable, but so too does its defence. Young people on both sides of what has never really been a debate have found their inboxes littered with abuse, even death threats. Because of a cricket competition.
There is limited civil discourse about the genuine merits of The Hundred - the proven benefits of condensed, city-based competitions; the evident impact on the women’s game; the general exposure of the sport - and there is not recognition that the county game has failed to test cricket’s societal boundaries during 18 years of T20.
There is too much expectation that the game can survive radical change all in one go, as some of The Hundred’s most ardent supporters would have it, and too much determination to preserve the status quo.
It is lazy to label the festering turd that is The Hundred Conversation as “cricket’s Brexit”, and trying to tie it to some sort of overarching culture war does a disservice to the many young people who enjoy the county scene, and the considerable number of county regulars who are open-minded to how the new competition broadens the game’s horizon.
Cricket’s social media scene has become a pretty wretched place in recent weeks - nasty, tribalised and one-eyed - and it doesn’t look like clearing any time soon.
And after all that, we haven’t even mentioned the sport.
Because, while 100-ball cricket looks and feels an awful lot like T20, there are innovations which are likely to persist in the game.
London Spirit's Deandra Dottin
Matches can be played faster for several reasons: TV umpires are taking a fraction of the time to come to conclusions using DRS, standing umpires are more willing to keep players on the field through showers, teams are changing ends just 10 times in an innings, and captains are operating against the threat of a player being pulled from outside the fielding circle if they fall behind the over rate (a playing condition also implemented in the Blast).
These are genuine improvements on short-form cricket, which ought to be adopted across the board to make cricket a more engaging product. Still, though, it seems a fantasy that any side is going to hit the magical 65-minute innings duration.
The overall quality, unsurprisingly, has been better than the average Blast match but well down on the “world-class” billing all those adverts promised - a result of Covid and the modest salaries afforded to the men in a world of bumper franchise paydays.
The pitches have varied, and spin has played a very prominent role, but there is more nuance and intelligence in how teams are using their sets of fives and the powerplays than many might give credit for.
And yet, Liam Livingstone still hits the ball just as far for Birmingham Phoenix as he does for Lancashire, and Matt Parkinson was ragging deliveries from outside leg to the top of off wearing Championship whites back in April.
We are learning little new about the elite men’s cricketer, but buckets about the women: Alice Capsey, Lauren Bell and Eve Jones have all made considerable contributions, Jemimah Rodrigues is the standout player of both men’s and women’s competitions so far.
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