The big news in English cricket today is that Durham County Cricket Club have been relegated after accepting a hand out from the governing body, the ECB, to bail them out of serious financial trouble. The full statement from Durham CCC is here.
I worked at Durham CCC for five seasons and can honestly say this decision feels like a betrayal. The club were £3.8 million in debt and increasingly found it difficult to service that debt, leading them to go to the ECB to ask for help. But how did it get to this?
When I joined in 2003 there was already a significant debt the club had from developing the Riverside. Don’t forget that Durham are the youngest First Class club in England and Wales and in 1990 didn’t have a ground. The development of a ground that could host international cricket was part of the acceptance criteria into the professional game and the club borrowed to create a ground that hosted its first Test in 2003 (v Zimbabwe…I was there!).
It doesn’t take long looking at the balance sheet of a County Cricket Club to realise that the only serious money to be made is from hosting international cricket. We even produced a report which plotted success in the domestic game and correlated that income from the international game. It wasn’t scientific, but the trend was definitely there.
To survive and thrive, Durham had to bid for international cricket. Unfortunately, the way the ECB ran the tender process for big games back then (I was last involved in 2007) was a recipe for disaster and something that caused disquiet in many Test Match Grounds (TMGs). The process was broadly one of blind bids for certain games (or packages of games) with games being awarded to the highest bidder. There was extra complexity built in – certain grounds had rights to some days per year or Test matches per cycle and some games had to be played in certain cities, but by and large, it was the biggest cheque won.
While this process was responsible for driving up revenues at the ECB, something which benefits the whole game and provided more funds for all of the counties, it only had two potential outcomes
a) all games are played in city centre grounds with a heavy bias towards the SE where tickets prices are higher or
b) a county over reaches itself and ends up in the shit.
Today we saw b) happen.
I never buy England only playing in London in any sport. National teams should be available to the nation and I’d love to see the football and rugby teams tour the country like cricket does. But if the system pushes counties towards bankruptcy then it can’t be for the good of the game.
As Jonathan Agnew, the BBC’s cricket correspondent (and man who knows more about this game than I do) said,
“While this has been a lesson to other counties similarly tempted to enter the big time, it should also discourage the ECB from encouraging counties to take such a gamble.”
Gamble Gone Wrong
In the time I spent at Durham, servicing the initial stadium debt was on almost every agenda at a commercial meeting. I can’t believe that adding millions more in debt would’ve been top of anyone’s list unless pushed there by the ECB. New floodlights, bigger ground (even though the existing one was rarely full) and better facilities were all added as pre-requisites for getting international games.
Did the club over reach? Obviously. But not on player salaries and chasing titles. They won three titles in six years by investing in youth development, promoting from within and developing players for England… Y’know, the way the ECB ask clubs to do and were held up as a model to other clubs – especially the clubs who spent entire budgets on bringing in no name Kolpak players or over the hill ex Test stars.
The club over-reached on infrastructure development. They developed a ground to host international cricket – as instructed – gave England players like Onions, Collingwood, Harmison, Stokes and Wood and were rewarded with shit opposition in early May and September because ticket prices and corporate hospitality in County Durham can’t be pushed as high central London.
It was a tough time for the club – without international cricket there was no way of servicing the debt. But preparing the stadium for internationals and bidding for games just pushed the debts higher and higher to this unsustainable level.
The terms of this bail out make the Greek’s EU funding package look like charity (OK, that might be an overstatement) and there’s no suggestion from me that the money should have come with no strings attached. Not penalising the club might have encouraged other clubs to spend beyond their means assuming the ECB will step in.
Should there be strings attached to a bail out? Of course. Does it make sense to protect your “investment” by claiming back prize money? Naturally. But this multitude of sanctions looks spiteful.
- convenient points deduction to relegate the club
- massive points deduction for next year so they can’t get promoted
- salary cap restrictions to stop them recruiting (after 2 of 3 players who scored 1000+ runs this year were let go)
- one day and T20 points deduction to make it difficult to qualify for the knock out stages where the real money is
- no prize money until the debt is paid back
It looks to be a nasty set of punishments that are designed to make sure Durham suffer for many, many years to come. There is no doubt that those in charge of Durham could have made different choices, but it looks like whatever choice they made, the result would have been broadly the same – don’t invest and bid for big games and not be able to service the debt, invest and bid for big games and not be able to service a bigger debt. Which was the right decision?
It’s no surprise to hear that Yorkshire are millions in debt (but with a wealthy backer), while Hampshire and Warwickshire have had financial troubles that needed local council support. Is it because all of these great clubs have been mismanaged? Or have they been pushed to this by a bidding system that rewarded profligate behaviour?
One last thought… The ECB looks set to introduce an eight team T20 franchise system in the next few months.
With Durham being in hock to the ECB now, they can’t exactly kick up a stink when it’s announced they won’t be one of the city franchises. I’d happily bet that the other eight international venues (Lord’s and the Oval (both London), Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Cardiff and Southampton) receive the franchises, which would be handy, right?
Not suggesting there’s a conspiracy here, obviously, but, y’know, you heard it here first…