Too many Tests, and too expensive: the reasons behind the empty seats

For the first time since 1986 an Oval Test has failed to sell out its opening day. Glenn Moore asks why cricket is no longer a sell-out
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The Independent Online

How bad is the problem?

Attendances for Test cricket have been falling throughout the world for a couple of decades – except in England. That is until this summer with the opening day of the Pakistan Tests at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston also failing to sell out. However, tomorrow and Saturday are sold out at The Oval and only 3,000 tickets (from a 23,500-capacity) are available today. Had the weather forecast been better the ground would have been fuller yesterday.

There are various causes, some of which may be specific to this year, such as Pakistan's poor showing in the previous Tests, back-to-back Tests in the same region, and a Wednesday start. Others may be more long-term, like cricket's move to Sky television. Plus there is the impact of the recession. Whether this year is a blip, or the beginning of a trend, will become clearer next summer when Sri Lanka and India visit.

Why are there two London Tests in a row, and why start on a Wednesday?

A largely unavoidable consequence of a congested calendar. Lord's would normally be the first Test, and The Oval the last, but Lord's staged Pakistan v Australia as recently as mid-July. If Lord's is to start next Thursday, this Test (to allow for the three day's grace between Tests dictated by the ICC) must start on the preceding Wednesday.

Has the move to Sky resulted in a decline in public interest in Tests?

There is little doubt the absence of live cricket on terrestrial TV has affected the wider public's engagement with the game. Sky's market penetration has grown significantly but the majority of viewers do not have access to the satellite broadcaster's channels. This means a Test series does not create a buzz around it, there are no "watercooler moments" of the type that encourage fans to want to see the action in the flesh.

Can anything be done about that?

English professional cricket, as a whole, is struggling financially, especially at county level and the ECB feel the premium Sky pays for exclusivity is worth the loss of terrestrial coverage. A far greater percentage of TV income (22 per cent) is ploughed back into the grassroots in cricket than happens in football, though there is still an argument that too much ends up in the pockets of short-term overseas signings. The Coalition Government has put on hold the suggestion, by the Davies review, that Ashes Tests should become Listed (restricted to free-to-air TV) events. It should be remembered that the BBC did not bid last time the contract came up and prior to Sky terrestrial broadcasters would break off from live cricket for news updates, or to cover horse racing.

Is there too much international cricket?

This summer England play six Tests, 13 ODIs and two T20 matches. Plus Pakistan played two Tests against Australia here. That is 55 days' international cricket. Almost everyone agrees this is too much, but if the cricket is reduced so is the game's income. The ECB hope improved marketing will help. This year they even had legendary Pakistani cricketers conduct interviews in Urdu and Punjabi with Anglo-Pakistani radio stations to promote these Tests. The lack of Pakistani fans (understood to reflect their team's poor form as much as anything) suggests this failed but it shows a willingness to innovate.

Is the recession a factor?

Anecdotal responses, including most on a BBC blog on the subject yesterday, suggest ticket price is a key factor. Tickets for the Oval vary from £46 to £85. When even ASDA reveals that consumers are reducing their spending, supporters are bound to think carefully about the cost of attending a cricket match.

Can anything be done about it?

The ECB does not set tickets prices, host venues do, but the ECB influences them due to the process by which they allocate matches. Twenty years ago there were only six Test venues in the country: Lord's, The Oval, Edgbaston, Headingley, Old Trafford and Trent Bridge. Now Cardiff, the Rose Bowl and Durham are also in the mix. Even with the expansion of Test matches there are not enough to go round, especially as Lord's, the biggest venue, usually stages two Tests.

Some grounds (including The Oval) have long-term staging agreements but others bid for individual Tests. Competition has induced venues to bid ever-larger amounts. The grounds will spend £17.5m in staging Tests next year, up from £5.4m in 2006. Cardiff, backed by the Welsh Assembly, paid an estimated £3m to stage the first Ashes Test last summer.

The grounds, which have also invested in facilities, to maximise revenue and enhance their prospects of staging games, have to recoup that expenditure, and the only way they can do so is from the spectator, whether through admission prices, or food and drink. There is some discounting – tickets for Sunday (in the unlikely event this Test goes that far) are £15 adult, £7.50 under-16s, and ticket prices will certainly come under discussion at the annual end-of-season review. The ECB are also looking to reduce the weighting given to finance in the bid process, increasing the emphasis given to factors such as how income from the Test is invested (ie, into the local cricket community, not to overseas players).