Cricket Attendances Up, Faith In Statistics Goes Down

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English cricket has never been healthier. According to figures released today, 2.3 million people attended international and domestic cricket last summer – that’s the most since the ECB were founded in 1998. Crack open the champagne, crack a smile … but whatever you do don’t analyse the figures too carefully.

On the surface it’s great news that just over 2.3 million went to the cricket last summer. Back in 1998, which must have been the date when cricket was invented, only 1.7 million bothered to show up. What’s more, 18,000 more people went to see the county championship last year (513,000 in 2015 up from 495,000 in 2014) so there’s great news for the counties too.

But before we start patting each other on the back too much – even though Sky have already started this in earnest – it’s probably best to defy Colin, Tom and Rupert and look behind the data. After all, 18,000 people spread over 34 matches, lasting 4 days, is only actually an increase of 132 people per day. And let’s not forget that many smaller counties missed out and are still in debt; attendances in London (and at other test grounds) boosted the average.

What’s more, comparing attendance figures from 1997 with 2015 seems rather random. The ECB might have changed its name in 1997, but it still existed as an organisation before this (as the TCCB, or the TCP, or whatever it was). Let’s not forget that cricket was really in the doldrums in the late 1990s. England were briefly the world’s worst team at that point. Attendance figures between 1998 and 2002 were therefore pitiful. Look at the statistics below from cricinfo – the best year was 1999, when 1.86 million went through the turnstiles, and the worst was in 2000, when just 1.55 million got their fat posteriors off the sofa. Talk about mass ambivalence.

Attendances at Cricket Matches 1998-2015

            International     Domestic         Total
1997       498,916           1,207,103      1,706,019
1998       453,365          1,130,074      1,583,439
1999       788,623          1,074,488     1,863,111
2000      525,108          1,025,758     1,550,866
2001       713,455          1,012,095      1,725,550
2002      556,304         1,030,169      1,586,473
2003      630,213          1,266,962     1,897,175
2004      710,096         1,148,183       1,858,279
2005      693,321         1,363,685      2,057,006
2006      787,402         1,363,093      2,150,495
2007      809,430        1,222,897      2,032,327
2008      737,306        1,369,787      2,107,093
2009      716,187          1,121,880      1,838,067
2010      577,587          1,419,065      1,996,652
2011       849,302         1,452,109      2,301,411
2012      697,124          994,868        1,691,992
2013      790,475         1,398,409      2,188,884
2014      709,643        1,382,942       2,092,585
2015      785,030        1,543,734       2,328,764

Although things improved slightly in 2003 and 2004, when Michael Vaughan’s team started winning, attendances finally broke the magical 2 million figure in yes, you guessed it, 2005. This is when cricket briefly became cool again. As a result, a few hundred thousand more people felt motivated enough to go and see their team in the flesh.

Since 2005, attendances have generally been higher (certainly over 2 million) except for alarming downturns in 2009 (1.8 million) and 2012 (1.69 million). Until this year the highest figure was 2.3 million in 2011, the summer after Strauss’ team historically clinched the Ashes down under for the first time since 1986. It seems that nothing puts bums on seats like an Ashes triumph.

It’s surely no coincidence, therefore, that this year’s bumper crop also came during an Ashes summer. The total attendance of 2.32 million is certainly encouraging, even if part of the boost came directly from the women’s Ashes. Therefore it’s hard to tell if more people attended men’s cricket this year than they did in 2011.

However, it’s important that people don’t simply read the headlines and assume all in the garden is rosy. The high of 2011 (2.3 million) was followed by a fallow 2012 (1.69 million); therefore less people watched cricket in 2012 than they did back in 1997. Who’s to say that 2016 won’t be a poor year too? It’s pretty evident, if one examines the figures closely, that attendances year on year don’t really follow any kind of pattern. They oscillate like Chris Jordan’s line and length.

Basically you can use these stats to prove whatever you like. If you compare this year, which was a successful Ashes year, and compare them to a figure during a time when England were the world’s worst test team, you can argue that those marvellous visionaries at the ECB have boosted attendances by a massive 35%. How incredibly competent of them.

However, if you take a broader perspective, you’ll realise there’s plenty more work to be done. One could always argue, for example, that if you compare 2011 (2.3 million) with 2015 (2.32 million) there has been no increase in attendances whatsoever – except in women’s cricket where, by happy convenience, just over 20,000 people went to the women’s Ashes. That’s not to put women’s cricket down – it’s great that the girls are getting more exposure – but such assessments need to compare like with like.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the live cricket on TV debate. If one is judging the health of the game based on how many people are watching in the stands, then it’s equally valid to judge its health on the number of people watching on TV.

So how many people watched live cricket on TV back in 1997? I haven’t been able to track down the exact figures, but it was a lot more than the few hundred thousand who likely watched Stuart Broad’s devastating (and highly amusing) 8-15 at Trent Bridge this summer. What’s more, we know that a peak audience of 8.2 million watched the 2005 Ashes. Sky don’t attract anywhere near this number.

Basically, it’s incredibly disingenuous to assess the health of the game based purely on attendances. Surely overall ‘engagement’ is the best guide i.e. those watching (via any medium) and those actually playing cricket. If one adds the attendance figures to the TV viewing figures, far fewer people engaged with cricket in 2015 than ten years previously. The extra 250,000 who saw their team in the flesh this year is rather offset by the 7 or 8 million who weren’t watching on TV.

And then there’s the participation figures. Everybody knows that fewer people are playing cricket now than they were in 2006, when live cricket disappeared behind a pay-wall. I’m not saying the two are directly related but there must be some connection.

So is cricket in England blooming? No of course it isn’t. Don’t be fooled. These attendance figures might be welcome news for some counties but they ignore the obvious truth: if people don’t have the option of engaging with live cricket on TV anymore, the only place they can get a slice of the action is at the grounds. So is it actually surprising that attendances are slightly up? Not that there’s clear evidence that this is the case anyway.

Thoughts?

James Morgan

31 Comments

  1. I’ll do it in bullet points:

    County T20 has been a huge success since revamped 2013 – but with only 8 home games a year, still not enough to keep Northants solvent. Its a popular format – but imagine how popular it COULD be with more enthusiastic ecb and media support and proper tv exposure.

    There are more international games now than in 1998 – this explains higher total attendance

    Its probably same people going in 2014 as in 1998 – unlikely to be new fans. no-one just drops £80 on a ticket or £600 on a sky subscription unless they’re already committed fans

    Cricket ecosystem as a whole is struggling badly – 3 of the 5 populations are down significantly (recreational, youth and tv spectators) whereas professional player and live spectator numbers are stable… at best.

  2. We must not forget that in 2011, England became #1 (and had a high profile series against India). In 2012, the Olympics interfered somewhat, leading to a bizarre situation that the battle for #1 was decided in a three match series, which South Africa won. Incompetent sides get rewarded with a fifth Test in their next series, competent sides are lucky to get three Tests.

    2013 also had a Champion’s Trophy in England in addition to the 2013 Ashes (and New Zealand as well). The international figures are enough to make you weep.

    2014 had seven Tests, 5 of which were against India. 2015 had yet another Ashes series.

    What has also changed dramatically is the way domestic cricket is structured. The T20 competition is what really gets people to the grounds. In 2014, half (51%) of the attendance was caused by the T20 Blast. If you exclude the T20 attendances, the attendance figures for the “traditional” domestic competitions are abysmal: Since every county has about 40 days of cricket at their home venues / season, that means that a county averages about 700 000 / 18 = 39 000 people attending per year, or roughly 1000 per day – and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize out that that is heavily skewed by the contribution of the one day competition.

    Also, these attendance figures are deceptive. People can go to multiple games a year or attend a Test on all 5 days. So in terms of unique visitors, you’d be lucky if 35% of the visitors are unique (if not only because it is the same people attending time and again at Lord’s and a few other grounds). If that is the case, then it out of the nearly 2.3 million, 800 000 are unique visitors. To put such a number in context, a full house at the MCG already means 100 000 unique visitors in a day.

    If you compare that with TV figures, you’re having figures of a particular moment – rather than an entire calendar year (as with attendance figures). So even if at the high point of the 2005 Ashes, the figure was 8 million that may still mean that during the year say 15 million people have watched some of the cricket.

    That applies to Sky as well, but given that access to Sky Sports is far more limited, and expensive the effect will be a lot smaller. How many subscribers do they have to begin with? You also have less reason not to watch, when you have paid 600-700 pounds per year for a service.

    The figures do not make for good reading.

    • Considering the rise of T20 since 1998, it’s surprising the domestic figures haven’t gone up more. I don’t blame the ECB for trying to put a positive spin on this, but as you say the situation isn’t quite so rosy.

  3. The game needs a profile boost in all levels and formats now, although it maybe too late. The split of Ashes rights from Sky to BT in the future may make it worse. Sky maybe discounted for ECB accredited cricket clubs but its not good for ALL clubs.

    The women’s game desperately needs terrestrial coverage but is hamstrung by the greed and laziness of the ECB just look at the Football it got a huge boost from one tournament of coverage.

    T20 for men and WSL for women would benefit in the same way.

  4. Just to offer some comparison with Australia because we sometimes hear England are the only country who care about Test cricket.

    The Brisbane and Perth Tests attracted crowds of about 50k and 40k respectively – which doesn’t sound too good. However the TV viewing figures have been comfortably over 1m average on each day of each Test. It needs to be remembered Australia has a population of only 24m.

    I’d be very interested to hear any recent crowd or TV stats from other countries recently – especially for India.

    The Adelaide day/night experiment is almost upon us and it’s going to be very interesting to see if the forecast crowds (40-50k on the first day has been mentioned) turn up.

    • I will ask around, but it is very difficult to compare, due to the vast differences in individual wealth in India, certainly compared to Australia and England. In some states long power failures are a part of daily life. A large portion of the population are basically subsistence farmers. India is rapidly developing, so it is quite possible that the numbers will increase dramatically over the next few years.

      Even the IPL only reaches a fraction of the population – but given that the population is well over a billion that still remains a massive number of people. For example, there were 145 million unique viewers for the first 14 games of IPL 8. And I have seen reports that suggest that the figure for the entire last season stands at close to 200 million.

      I am not the biggest fan of the BCCI, but they do offer live online streaming of domestic first class cricket games. For free. The quality is not too bad either, since obviously they can’t put in millions to produce sleek coverage. That is highly commendable.

  5. Put quite simply, the leaders at the ECB are making decisions that will benefit the ECB during their tenure, and massively hurt the ECB when they’re long gone.

    I’m yet to meet anyone who ‘discovered’ cricket on Sky. I like 99% of us out there discovered the game through watching it on free to air TV.

    Now I know, 25 years on, the world is a different place, especially the market for TV and entertainment in general.

    But surely it has to be obvious that the game needs as many new young fans as possible. With so many entertainment options out there, youngsters are unlikely to flick onto a random cricket match and sit there watching it, like many of us probably did in the early 90s.

    Thankfully, there is a solution. I think the ECB needs to put even more energy behind the T20 competition, and take a short term financial loss to ensure that the competition is shown on BBC or ITV. It will cost a few million now, but would ensure that the 8-15 year old demographic would see some exciting T20 action, and get a feel for what cricket is all about. From there they would go on the Internet, and probably discover CricInfo and thus test cricket.

    It’s the only hope the game has got, yes I know test cricket is a much better game than T20, but at this stage it’s our only hope.

  6. I was always expecting this year to be a good year, there were no distractions. If we’d have had better weather they would have been even healthier.

    Next year is the real test, Euro’s & Olympic year coupled with low profile tourists means cricket will struggle not to get on the back pages but to about 10 pages in.

    The ECB really need a hard sell and some clever marketing.
    I haven’t purchased any tickets yet but I’m pleased that Edgbaston are only charging £40 the tickets and when I looked areas are selling.

    I’ve had a lot of conversations about the Aussie crowds on Twitter, as with all stats you can read all sorts of things . I take the positives for Brisbane, it was record crowd for an Australia/NZ game there, Perth was poor but the prices were ridiculously high.
    Coupled with the fact its early November , the end of the acedamic year and virtually no one is on holiday I came to the conclusion they were decent crowds.

    Back home, cricket needs a FTA presence more than ever. Is anyone listening though?

    • Glad we agree Neil. Overall I don’t see any particular trend upwards or downwards re: attendances. It’s just a bit worrying that the county figures depend so much on T20. It would be great if we could get that on the BBC or C4/5.

    • I’ve been assured through the grapevine that the ECB are aware of the catastrophe unfolding in youth cricket, and are looking to try to address this by promoting school cricket more aggressively.

      Unfortunately, they don’t seem to understand the problem. Schools find it almost impossible to get the kids interested in playing a sport they have never heard of and have zero interest in playing. They’d simply rather play football or tennis or one of the other sports they actually see on tv.

      You can’t just tell schools to start cricket teams and expect it to happen. The kids have to be interested in it in the first place, and the only way to do that, is to get it on the tv in their livings rooms and bedrooms.

  7. Funny thing is, it was actually 1997 when the ECB was founded. Just another fallacy in these statistics…!

    Thanks for the article, James.

  8. You might have just hit on the answer there. Test cricket is more for purists and older viewers who are more likely to have Sky anyway, so leave it there for now, but put at least some T20 on free to air (and maybe a legal webcast too). Would keep the ECB moneymen happy and expose the game to a wider audience. Big question though – are the big free to air broadcasters even interested in showing cricket any more? Sky have bid unopposed in recent years.

    • I talked about this with Jarrod Kimber in our interview with him about Death of A Gentleman over at TFT. He said that broadcasters actually love cricket. It provides 5 days of programming to a captive sporting audience. I’m not surprised BT are trying to take it off Sky. I guess that BBC 3/4 don’t have the budget to bother bidding, while we all know that C5 dropped live cricket because the new bosses there weren’t fans. Kimber argued that it’s mainly a problem of marketing. If the game was marketed better, then there would be more interest from the public, sponsors and broadcasters.

    • Even a county cricket game would pull in 100 times the viewers of your average digital channel. If the ECB sold the footage at a sensible price, there would be plenty of channels that would bite their arms off.

  9. “After all, 18,000 people spread over 34 matches, lasting 4 days, is only actually an increase of 132 people per day”

    Just a thought, when you take into account rained off days and matches that finish with a day to spare, you aren’t comparing like with like. I think this summer was drier than last – from my own season of club cricket, rain had less of an impact though of course that’s only played on a Saturday so could have just got lucky.

    • Not that I’m asking anyone to go through all the games calculating the number of actual days played. Would be a pointless and thankless task!

      • Not the actual days played, but I did work out how many scheduled days there were every year for England home games (5 * the number of tests + ODIs + T20Is).

        Also it has the international crowd totals from this article and the average crowd per scheduled day. It could be quite a way off, with tests finishing before the 5th day fairly often, but it’s as far as I’m willing to go.

        [IMG=https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CUhSK5AWsAAVH2M.png]

    • I was just thinking that. We could do with An Analyst, who actually is an analyst and not a media celebrity. English cricket is not very clever with the weather. Still remember pictures of New Road looking like a lake. Still remember the West Indians flyingover in early Spring from the tropics. You just knew the “warm up” match at Hove wouldn’t complete. Eventually called off due to bad light. No, it was bloody cold; the light was fine. The season starts earlier and I for one won’t trot along, swaddled in 3 jumpers and a coat, to perch on a plastic chair all day.

      Costs and prices? That’s transport, tickets, consumables (especially now you can’t take in your own reasonably priced fare).

      Lack of Heroes. There have been players who have been noted to clear the bars when they come out. KP probably the last. Buttler could be one but you ain’t gonna see much of him at a county ground. In fact, due to ECB’ contract terms, you won’t see much of England’s top players, so you could say the product is second best.

      End of ramble. Like I say, a real analyst would provide a more profound summary than just adding up gate numbers.

      • Really my article is just an attempt to give some perspective. I’ve seen plenty of headlines declaring how the latest facts prove that cricket is in fine health, but we know the opposite is true really. I would’ve loved the chance to discuss T20 in particular. It’s just a shame I’m not a pro with the time to invest. It would’ve been a very long article if I’d explored all the nuances / permutations too. That’s why we need all you people commenting!

        Thanks for all your contributions to the debate everyone.

        • Sorry James I wasn’t having a dig at you. It was at Simon Hughes, who immodestly calls himself The Analyst and such skills would be so useful in this, if he didn’t mind irritating the ECB

      • We saw quite a bit of Buttler in the T20 this summer. Along with plenty of other star names.

        This goes back to how we manage our players though. Buttler is one of the best and most exciting white ball cricketers in the world, he should be playing both OD and T20 formats for England and Lancashire all summer long. Instead he’s looking out of his depth poking around in test cricket. Its a waste of his talent.

    • I think they just include England games. So yes, if you mean England’s games in these tournaments. But not the stats from all games between other nations. I’m not entirely sure though. The data didn’t specify.

  10. It has probably been forgotten but at one stage Murdoch had signed up Rugby Union to Sky and then did not renew the contract, forcing them to go cap in hand bcd to terrestrial-hence they are reluctant to commit again.
    In addition we have seen the impact of a pay wall on Boxing and now we see the impact on cricket, even IPL was greedily snatched. it has been 2006 since a child without SKY has seen live televised Cricket, the highlights minus adverts are about 20 minutes.
    So it is coming unto 10 years so an 8 year old would be 18 years of age-how many children will have heard of Root or Broad or Stokes, they will not be able to join Freddie and become a celebrity on TV. The ECB have sold about 50% of the family silver another 10 years and cricket will have the profile of POLO.

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