Lord's exits bring threat to TV and sponsorship

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The Independent Online

English cricket faces crisis as it prepares to negotiate new broadcasting and sponsorship deals worth millions of pounds. At stake are the usual suspects: players' jobs, county clubs and, this time, the high wages now paid to international players, which have brought cricket more into line with other major sports.

The professional game gave a good impression last week of already being in disarray when it lost its third senior executive in four weeks. John Read, the corporate affairs director, joined Tim Lamb, the chief executive, and Mark Sibley, the commercial director, in resigning. More of the six senior officials left at the England and Wales Cricket Board are considering their futures. Morale in the rest of the organisation is at rock bottom.

The state of affairs will be compounded if the ECB's chairman, David Morgan, due for re-election later this year, is opposed. The most likely candidate is Mike Soper, the deputy chairman, who has openly criticised the ECB and its officials, which suggests he is not worried about collective responsibility or the game's image with its backers.

Never mind the playing aspect, England could have chosen a more timely moment to play so limply in their own triangular one-day tournament. The big problem for the game is that England's broadcasting partners and sponsors are watching these events unfold while contemplating whether it is worth spending their money next time. The broadcasting deal, worth £147m at present, represents 83 per cent of the ECB's income, with the main sponsorship deals accounting for much of the rest.

All three major sponsors - npower (who back the Test series), Vodafone (the England team) and NatWest (the one-day internationals) - will decide in September whether they wish to be associated with cricket after their current deals run out at the end of the 2005 season. Equally concerning is the television deal with Channel 4 and Sky. This also runs out at the end of next season, but informal discussions have already started.

Sibley was hired last year partly because of his expertise in this area, but he left two days after handing in his notice to return to his previous employers. Preliminary nego-tiations are now being handled by the newly installed chairman of the marketing committee, Giles Clarke, who is chairman of Somerset and a successful vintner, and Sibley's deputy, Tom Harrison.

The joke is already unkindly around that Clarke's background may equip him to organise a piss-up in a brewery, but will that necessarily enable him to come up with a lucrative TV deal?

Morgan was in optimistic mood as he left a meeting at Lord's on Friday night, although he is well aware that the mood at Lord's is despondent. Lamb, who will leave in September, has been a popular boss, and his resignation has triggered a resigned mood. Headhunters are searching for a replacement but, as the game is still effectively run by the counties and Lamb has lamented his lack of authority, their path will not be smooth.

"Uncertainty clearly breeds low morale," said Morgan. "But again that's something I've experienced during my time in industry." Morgan, describing Sibley as "a significant loss", said he and the board recognised the need to have some experience in paving the way for a good television rights deal in a market which remains at a fairly low ebb. The ECB will hire a consultant in the next few days, and will also have to find somebody to fill the corporate affairs role temporarily.

"I resist the suggestion that the game and the board are a in a mess, quite the contrary," said Morgan. "The fact that three people have left is the sort of thing that happens. I know that Mike Soper has been quoted as saying something it would have been preferable he had not said, and I have spoke to him about that. But we have a very good working relationship. I intend to stand as chairman again because I enjoy the job and there's still work to do."

Despite Morgan's bullishness, he recognises that the game is receiving negative publicity, which is difficult to stomach when its popularity is unquestionable. The one-day internationals drew capacity crowds, Twenty20 is packing them in and ticket sales for the Tests against West Indies are going well.

The spectre of Zimbabwe is largely responsible for the plight. It is an issue that exhausted Lamb and cost Read dear after he orchestrated the campaign to say that England would not tour and then had to backtrack. For a weak cricketing nation, now suspended from Tests, it has had an inordinate effect on the game in the old mother country.