Should Test Cricket Be Free?

During the lunch break of the second Ashes Test at Lord’s, former Australian captain and cricket legend Steve Waugh was on Test Match Special radio talking about the issues facing cricket at the moment.

With “House Full” signs expected at every Ashes Test in England, it might be an odd time to be talking about poor crowds in the longest form of the game, however they do exist, and here’s what Waugh said:

“I like the idea of day-night Test match cricket, it will revitalise the game in places where they struggle for crowds, and would almost become a social event. I would also consider letting people into Test cricket for free because once they have experienced a match they will come back.”

I like the idea of day-night Test cricket, but that’s a sideshow here. On the issue of saving Test cricket by making it free I think he’s dead wrong. Not just wrong, but that’s a step that would hasten the demise of the game.

What’s the problem?

Test cricket attendances have been in decline across the globe for a number of years now. The advent of one day internationals started the process and it the growth of Twenty20 over the last decade has knocked the popularity of Test cricket for six (sorry). For spectators in most cricket playing nations, T20 has quickly become the number one format of the game. But for players, administrators and even broadcasters, Test cricket remains the ultimate.

Outside of England and Australia, audiences for Test matches are fairly poor. Even when India plays Pakistan, a match with more than a hint of political drama, only a smattering of people fill the stands. This is mainly because Test cricket is played during the day (when people are at work), is rather sedate and can, in many cases, be seen as meaningless.

The introduction of the ICC Test Championship should hopefully add some intrigue to the format, but it seems to be a slow burner rather than a 2 week extravaganza that the T20 World Cup has become.

Free seats = Free tickets

When England played Pakistan in the UAE a few winters ago, the stands were barren and the wonderful stadiums were like ghost towns. That was until Abu Dhabi, when the gates were thrown open for free and, by some estimates, 14,000 people attended. On the face of it, this support Steve Waugh and at the time, the Guardian’s Vic Marks to suggested that this model is followed throughout the world.

But there are huge issues with handing out free tickets to Test cricket, even if the practice was only to happen in places where tickets don’t sell.

The weather

Cricket is a game played in nice weather. When it rains, nothing happens. So in Abu Dhabi, you can give tickets away for free and people will come safe in the knowledge that they’re in the middle of the desert and it’s not going to rain. Try making that promise in Galle, Wellington, Cape Town or Manchester.

So knowing they can get a free ticket, people stick their head out of the window on the morning of the game, look at the weather and make a decision. If it’s cloudy, has rain potential or isn’t a perfect day, they do something else. So there are no people in the ground.

The match situation

  • Day 1: First innings score of 400 in a day.
  • Day 2: Team bowled out for 150 and, following on, are 5 – 1.
  • Day 3: How many people are going to turn at the ground on day 3 to watch? Yep, you guessed it: zero. Unless it’s the Ashes decider.

Value promise

Not only do you have no one in the ground, but you have no revenue either. Anyone who was previously going to buy a ticket in advance has lost any motivation to do that. By making all tickets free, you’ve also removed the need for that person to fix the cricket in their schedule and cancel all other plans.

It’s what marketers call the ‘appointment to view’. If you’ve invested enough money in a ticket, you are almost certain to attend. If it’s free, you don’t care – the ticket has no value. As an example, one English Test Match ground gave away 1000 tickets to a Test and had less than 15 people use them.

By making tickets free, you’ve massively devalued your product. And then the trouble starts. If you have no value to your product, why should anyone want it at all?

What’s the solution?

Firstly, get the pricing right. Test tickets can cost around £100 in England thanks to simple supply and demand economics. But supply and demand works both ways – if no one wants them are your prices too high? There are numerous examples of ‘western’ teams visiting Asia and the Caribbean and locals being priced out of the market. If the ground is going to be empty, don’t charge a king’s ransom for the tickets.

But don’t undersell your product. Many governing bodies have taken the view that TV income from Test cricket is enough and written the product off. The public can sense this and attach the same value to the game as the administrators – none. So create an event and sell the product.

Nothing beats being there

If you have stars of the cricket world coming to your patch, shout from the roof tops about it. Do you want to watch cricket? Maybe. Do you want to witness history? Yes! Would you like to see Tendulkar score his 100th ton or Pietersen hit the ball around the park? Of course you do. Why sit at home and watch it when you can experience the drama and the passion live in the stadium? Test cricket as a spectacle is actually going through a renaissance, so get out there and start telling the customers about it.

Create a demand

Another way to add value for your product is to create a demand for tickets. You might think this is difficult given that demand is low and grounds are big. But a sideways glance at other industries shows how to create demand for ‘unloved’ products. Look at budget airlines – they’re rarely full, but you wouldn’t ever know this until you board the flight: they release a tranche of tickets at a low price for the early birds, with the increase in price creating the demand for tickets. I can’t think of any sports ground that uses variable pricing like airlines, but I can think of many where it would work.

Get value for your ‘free’ tickets

And don’t give any tickets away unless you get something back. Children are great at sports events; they bring noise, excitement and an atmosphere. If you must give something away, give the tickets to children and get them hooked on the game. Most children can’t go anywhere without an adult, so charge them for a ticket. A family day out for the cost of one adult ticket? What parent could refuse?

Right sentiment, wrong idea

Of course there will be local variance – what works in Sri Lanka might not work in New Zealand – but I’m certain they would bring in a bigger crowd than giving away tickets to what is supposed to be the platinum product.

Steve Waugh is right that in some parts of the world Test cricket needs support to get the fans in the stands again. Let’s look at new ideas – day/night cricket, two divisions, sensible scheduling, dedicated Test match dates – but please, no more ‘give the tickets away’ ideas.

The basics fundamentals of marketing, sales and economics should be used to influence the thought process, rather than opinion of ex players, no matter how fine they were with a bat or ball.

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