The Hundred's civil war needs defusing for the good of the game

SAM MORSHEAD: The discussion around The Hundred desperately needs moderation, because the divide - entirely of the ECB's own making - is only ever becoming more ingrained

brave29072201

So it's that time of year, again.

The Hundred is back, let the shouting matches begin.

Once again, the demographics and sizes of the crowds around the country, and the reach of the competition on television and through digital channels, are likely to be just as indicative of the success (or otherwise) of the tournament as the cricket on the field. 

The Hundred's viewing figures in 2021 were significant - the competition's peak (1.073million) and average (480,000) audiences on Sky Sports were almost exactly double that of the T20 Blast, with only T20Is and Tests more popular. 

Sky have, The Cricketer understands, budgeted for a modest year-on-year rise in viewing figures - around five per cent. That might seem a little lacking in aspiration, especially given the weight of marketing thrown at this competition, but - as is often forgotten in the conversation around The Hundred - there is nuance at play.

For example, with the Premier League football season starting a week earlier this year, to accommodate a winter World Cup, there will be six fewer matches on Sky Sports Main Event, where audiences are typically around 50 per cent higher than Sky Sports Cricket. 

hundredcrowd010801-min

The Hundred returns on August 3 [Getty Images]

The women are playing fewer games in 2022, too, owing to a clash with the Commonwealth Games - six group matches per side, not eight - which will have a knock-on impact on YouTube figures (remember, all the women's action is freely available online). 

Sky are compensating by putting more matches on Showcase - the feature channel which replaced Sky One in 2021 and is visible to anyone with the most basic viewing package.

Whether it retains its newfound audience 12 months on is a fascinating sub-plot.

Meanwhile, ticket sales have been reasonable, with seven matchdays sold out and most of the seats for the first week of the men's competition gone.  

While the ECB were outwardly very happy with the staging of the events in 2021, there was plenty of cause for concern: aggressive drunkenness in some grounds triggered bars to be closed as much as two hours before the end of the day's play (senior stewards at Lord's still bemoan the behaviour from nearly a year ago), an antiquated refund system which did not recognise the women's game had to be amended mid-season, music acts were not always audible and barely ever visible to fans in the stands, and there was a general concern about the strict contrast in the atmospheres between the women's competition (with mostly afternoon start times) and the men's. 

It will be fascinating to see how the Oval Invincibles double-header against Northern Superchargers plays out on August 11. The matchday is sold out, with the women playing in the evening. Whether the audience remains or leaves midway through will be a headline.

There have been steps taken to make the venues more family friendly in 2022, with a general increase in the percentage of capacity afforded to non-alcohol or family stands, none of which can be met with any reasonable sort of criticism.

patels010801-min

Managing director of The Hundred, Sanjay Patel [Getty Images]

However, in describing the ECB's target audience as "the right audience - a family audience", the competition's managing director Sanjay Patel unfortunately echoed the sentiment which many longstanding cricket supporters have taken exception to throughout The Hundred's four-and-a-half-year lifespan: namely, that they are not part of the ECB's plans, that their voices will not be heard, and that their preferences don't matter.

And this is where the discussion around The Hundred desperately needs moderation.

Because the divide is only ever becoming more ingrained. There is a reluctance, bordering on a refusal, among a section of cricket fans to even countenance the benefits The Hundred has already brought or shows considerable potential to bring: reach, diversity and youth among them. 

This opposition is of the ECB's own making, and was built years ago by the governing body's failure to even try to bring that community along for the ride. Instead, fuelled by meaningless platitudes about mums, kids and school holidays, it lost the room almost immediately.

It showed a monumental lack of leadership, communication and foresight - like a sheepdog trying to herd its flock using insults and put-me-downs - and it set the tone for what was to follow.

The fundamental problem of The Hundred - its potential to undercut the T20 Blast, the future product on offer for members and, by extension, the financial viability of the counties - has often been lost to groans about what is or isn't "proper" cricket. 

At times, this has exposed an ugly sense of entitlement, a disinclination to share the game, a habit of gatekeeping which does progress no favours. 

There is nothing about The Hundred which is not cricket.

There is plenty about its discord which isn't. 

And this is largely because neither side in this escalating civil war is doing anything to try to understand one another. 

As a result, the notion still circulates that a T20 Blast with a Hundred budget would have had the same sort of cut-through as the new competition - a marketing nonsense, which suggests relaunching an old product (one league but 19 brands) is just as effective as designing a new one for a specific purpose. 

livingstonel020801-min

The conversation around The Hundred has been fraught with tension [Getty Images]

As a result, large swathes of county supporters are either unaware or know but choose to forget that broadcasters want appointment-to-view television and, for the casual viewer, the Blast is a narrative mess. 

As a result, every tweak to the norm is met with increasingly pantomimic levels of faux horror: most recently the very sensible decision to stream Hundred matches on TikTok (the social media app has seen a 600 per cent rise in adults using it for news gathering in two years, while the platform has 1.39billion users worldwide).

As a result, anti-Hundred arguments never seem to come with a coherent map for the women's game in the event the tournament should be binned. "Just attach the eight Hundred teams to the counties and play double-headers with the Blast" doesn't cut it from a logistical, commercial, broadcasting, digital reach or fan experience perspective. We must do better. 

There are very sensible opposition positions to The Hundred around the country, but the nature of the general conversation - with the dial stuck on hysterical - means it is practically impossible to have an adult discussion. 

None of this is going to do the game any good. There is reason for change, and there is a responsibility to look after those who have loved the game for years. 

It is a start that the ECB have promised to look at data from the Cricket Supporters' Association's annual survey within Andrew Strauss's high performance review, but the governing body needs to show it cares. 

And those who would otherwise scream into the wind might want to consider stepping out of the gale, just for a moment. There is middle ground still to be reached, for the benefit of everyone. It's time to stop shouting and start talking. 

 


Related Topics

Comments

THE TEAMS

KEY INFO

Edinburgh House, 170 Kennington Lane, London, SE115DP

website@thecricketer.com

Welcome to www.thecricketer.com - the online home of the world’s oldest cricket magazine. Breaking news, interviews, opinion and cricket goodness from every corner of our beautiful sport, from village green to national arena.