Cricket: Sponsors threaten to pull out

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The Independent Online
ENGLISH CRICKET had lost three sponsors - Britannic Assurance, AXA Equity & Law and Texaco - before the start of this season and yesterday it emerged that they are in danger of losing two more.

First Cornhill's sponsorship manager, Geoff Mayhew, announced on radio that the company would be reviewing its involvement with Test cricket before negotiations on a renewal of its contract begin in the New Year. Then, in the aftershock, came a hint from NatWest that it too would be looking very hard at its deal, which, like Cornhill's, also runs out at the end of next season.

Cornhill Insurance is cricket's oldest established sponsor with 22 years of financial support to back that; NatWest is the second longest, having taken over the 60-over knock-out tournament in 1981 from Gillette.

Both agreed that their public image was influenced, by association, with the performance of the England Test team, and in NatWest's case by the overall state of the English game.

NatWest's media consultant, Jolyon Armstrong, said last night: "The performance of the England team has a bearing on the public's perception of us as sponsors. NatWest were one of four global sponsors of the Cricket World Cup and it was a major disappointment that England did not make it into the Super Six stage of the tournament."

NatWest is rumoured to be angry at the way its showpiece final was switched - without prior consultation with the sponsors - from its traditional Saturday to a Sunday, to accommodate Channel 4's demands (they are committed to racing on Saturdays). From NatWest's point of view that was merely piling Pelion on Ossa since the Trophy had already been reduced from its 60-over format to 50 overs to comply with the global trend in the one day game.

Armstrong added: "The World Cup itself and the latter stages of this season's NatWest Trophy have been very positive. But there will be a lot of discussions leading to negotiations to carry the sponsorship into the next millennium, because the renewal of the contract between NatWest and the ECB is not a given."

The alarm bells had been rung when Mayhew said in a radio interview: "We are concerned about the long term poor performances of England because it impacts upon audiences and that is effectively what we are buying. If these performances continue to produce an adverse effect on the perception people have of cricket then, yes, we will have to consider our position as a major sponsor with cricket."

Later Mayhew attempted to stem the floodtide of rumour that gathered momentum in the wake of his words and explained: "We will be reviewing things. We don't have all the data and we won't until the end of the season. Then we will reach a decision. This is like every other time when we have renewed our contract."

Mayhew then hinted that one good result in this fourth and final Test could swing things. "At the end of last season , when people were saying that England had not had a particularly good summer, they won the last Test match and the series against South Africa, the result of that was we had the very best of brand awareness of all time, 35 per cent, which put us among the top brands in the insurance sector."

It means that much is riding on this last Test. Never have the stakes been quite so high. In the light of Mayhew's final remark, nothing but victory will suffice.