Cricket: High stakes in game of give and take

Unrest is sweeping the counties over handouts. By Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online
NO SPEECH by Lord MacLaurin would be complete without the observation that cricket is not a rich game. The chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board has not yet finished an address by brandishing a begging bowl accompanied by a rendition of "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime", but it may be only a matter of time.

His financial anxiety is probably only natural, given three present concerns in the game. First, there is the fierce scrambling for the sport's cash in which the 18 first-class counties are now engaged. Second, there is the wild speculation that the World Cup, which starts next month, is massively short of its target figures and, third, there is the disturbing matter that the County Championship, the blue riband of the domestic game, which begins on 13 April, is still without a sponsor.

A settlement has still to be reached on the contentious issue of how the ECB's revenue, almost all of which is generated by Test match receipts, is to be divided in future. More, and increasingly urgent, talks are likely to take place this week. The authorities at the six Test match grounds want a change to the system which gives each of the first-class counties an equal share of the ECB's income. So far, they have refused to sign a staging agreement for this year's four Test matches against New Zealand.

Compromise is now in the air. The Test Match Grounds Consortium - Lord's, The Oval, Headingley, Old Trafford, Trent Bridge, Edgbaston - may not receive all they want, but they will receive something. In future the others cannot expect to have an equal share.

The dispute has been fermenting for some years and has consequently become bitter. Counties which stage Test matches say they need more cash from ticket receipts (at present they keep 25 per cent) to improve their grounds, the other clubs maintain they are all in it together. Feelings on all sides seem to have been exacerbated by the fear that the game is, as Lord MacLaurin constantly has it, not rich and may be getting poorer.

Last year each county received from the ECB, as its share of Test match receipts, pounds 1.1m. That was 15 per cent up on the pounds 950,000 of 1997 and there had been similar 15 per cent increases in the two previous years. In most cases the sum is the difference between profit and loss, but in many it can still not prevent the latter.

This summer, the World Cup will be in town. When it was launched amid much fanfare at Lord's two years ago the "Carnival of Cricket" slogan was already in place. The immediate feeling was that it was also meant to be a Fiesta of Cash. What has happened since supports MacLaurin's mantra, though the picture is not as bleak as has been painted in some quarters.

The original target revenue for the 1998 World Cup - excluding ticket sales - was pounds 40m, of which the greater proportion would come from television revenue and eight global partners. Neither has met expectations. It was hoped that the total fees from television rights would be pounds 25m. So far they have reached a little more than pounds 23.5m.

Only four global brand partners have been found, together with 10 official suppliers. Their combined contribution is slightly more than pounds 10m, making a total revenue of pounds 34m, pounds 6m under target. However, this sum is to be split evenly between the ECB and the International Cricket Council, each organisation thus ending up with pounds 17m. The ECB like to point out that this is actually only pounds 3m (or 15 per cent) less than they had aimed for.

"Two years ago, when we set out the aim of acquiring eight global partners we were confident of doing so," Richard Peel, the ECB's director of corporate affairs, said. "But the Asian economy, which is so important to cricket as a global game, was booming then. We could not legislate for what has happened there subsequently, and that has undoubtedly had an effect."

World Cup income will be further boosted by ticket sales (according to official figures these have already reached 80 per cent), licensing and merchandising revenue, totalling some pounds 12m. This will increase the ECB's World Cup take to pounds 29m. The costs of staging it will be pounds 18m, leaving a profit of pounds 11m.

The summer's other income will come from the four New Zealand Test matches after the World Cup, and the Board are reluctant to speculate on what that might turn out to be. They concede that counties will not receive a 15 per cent rise this year, but say they will get something. There is an element of acrimony all round.

The ECB think some counties could do more to help themselves and become particularly irritated when they plead poverty and still insist on dishing out higher rewards to players. Perhaps most worrying in all this is the lack of a sponsor for the Championship. Talks are continuing with one company but there are only nine days to go.