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.