Love it or loathe it, Hundred can help save English cricket
Making tournament open to franchise investment would bring in revenue that could keep red-ball game alive
By Nick Hoult CHIEF CRICKET CORRESPONDENT
Sport | Cricket
The Hundred is expected to expand from eight to 10 teams, with ownership of the franchises opened up to private investors. Meetings between the England and Wales Cricket Board and counties will continue from today over the path ahead. Two teams are set to be added to the Hundred in the coming years. It is understood buyers from India and the United States are already showing interest in the current eight teams and a closed league structure. The sums touted by investors for individual teams are said to dwarf the £300million offered by private equity firm Bridgepoint for a 75 per cent share of the whole competition last year. The ECB rejected the Bridgepoint offer, but under chief executive Richard Gould and chair Richard Thompson, it opened discussions with the counties this year over how to make the divisive tournament “bigger and better”. As revealed by Telegraph Sport, the board presented five options to counties. Those ranged from the status quo to a total overhaul of the tournament through the “open pyramid”, which would have involved a promotion and relegation structure involving all 18 counties and possibly the national (formerly minor) counties below that, too. In consultations with the counties, appetite for radical change has been lukewarm and with a final series of regional meetings across the country beginning today, it is expected to focus on providing finer detail on the finances and structures of expansion under “option two”: expansion to 10 teams. That expansion would happen in the next five years, although there is no exact timeframe. The likeliest locations are the South West, in Bristol and Taunton, and the North East, in Durham, which would provide a greater geographical spread. Much further down the line, Gould and Thompson’s preferred pyramid approach could be brought in if the investors are available to fund more teams. A closed league would suit investors, who were always said to be cold on the idea of promotion and relegation (which does not happen in any other franchise competition), while Sky, with whom the ECB has a lucrative broadcast deal until the end of 2028, is not keen on a radical overhaul. There are still hoops to jump through, but the ambitious intention would be for the new model to be in place for the 2025 season. On the sale of teams, details need ironing out: the proportion that would be sold; what investing would cost; how the proceeds would be split between the counties and the MCC; how agreements with the host venues would work. There is only one way to protect county cricket and that is by monetising the Hundred through private investment. Expanding it from eight to 10 teams would inevitably mean more matches and put a greater squeeze on the schedule but with bilateral international cricket losing its allure to broadcasters and spectators, the English game has to find new ways to prop itself up financially. The traditionalists who hoped the Hundred would wither and die are likely to be very disappointed. The England and Wales Cricket Board had to either back its tournament or bin it and the former is winning, despite the initial scepticism of the new regime at Lord’s. There are ever-increasing pulls on finances from player demands, counties falling into debt and struggling with rising costs, the growth of the women’s game and maintaining grass-roots cricket. It is a long winter for counties. Some are understood to be closing the business for players and administrative staff for a day each week to save on energy costs, which have pinched their finances hard over the past year. English cricket has a unique allure for investors in India and around the world. Owning a slice of the Lord’s or Oval teams would be a trophy for rich Indian business families or sports franchise investment firms in the United States. Edgbaston, Old Trafford and Headingley, too, are known across the cricketing world. Look at the reception David Beckham received in Mumbai last week at the World Cup semi-final. The ties between England and India remain very strong. The Hundred teams are the most valuable untapped “brands” in a heavily stocked franchise cricket market. With the Saudis also beginning to show an interest in cricket, there is potential for the English game to “future-proof ” itself as Tom Harrison, the board’s former chief executive, said when he launched the competition, with the biggest windfall in its history. He was referring to requiring a secondary source of income away from the England men’s team, who still account for the vast majority of revenue through broadcast deals and ticket sales. As far as Indian broadcasters are concerned, the only value they place on England fixtures are those involving their own country. Whatever the ECB’S deal is worth with Sony in India, the entirety of it is based on fixtures against India. The rest are, in effect, worthless. There are only so many times England can play India. Every other country are monetising their own tournament, some through Indian Premier League ownership. English cricket can attract other investors. Last year, the ECB received a £300million bid for 75 per cent of the competition. It could double that figure by selling equity stakes in teams while retaining control of the tournament. It will take a rewriting of the constitution, which requires consensus and working together, not traits long associated with 18 counties all with different needs. At the moment there is a “triple lock” on selling equity in Hundred teams which means it needs the agreement of the ECB, all 18 counties and the MCC plus the host ground. This will be rewritten when the Hundred agreements run out in 2025 to make the process simpler. Franchises could be split 50-50 ownership between the board and the host ground, or the money could be spread equally between the 19 shareholders (18 and the MCC, owner of Lord’s), with the host venues getting chunky hosting fees. If the ECB sells equity in its stake, that money would be spread around the whole game. It sounds as though consensus is being reached with the counties. Talk of an investable pyramid, expanding the ECB’S tournament to 39 teams, was met with a cold response, and clarity is forming over a 10-team competition instead. Promotion and relegation does not attract investors, who want guarantees of future income. Elite English cricket has not had a long tradition of promotion and relegation either. It happens only in the championship, and that has been in place for just two decades, a relatively short time for a competition established in Victorian England. The format of the tournament, whether it be 100 balls or T20, has been kicked down the road. Whether it is T20 or the Hundred will be a discussion for broadcasters and the ECB, and perhaps the teams, under their new investors, too. English cricket will never really solve its scheduling issue in the men’s game, there are just too many competing interests. At the moment the Indian board still values Test cricket. England play five Tests in India in the new year because the Board of Control for Cricket in India wants fixtures between the two countries to be as prestigious as the Ashes. Cricket is going through more change than any other sport, and largely it is positive. More people are consuming the sport than ever before globally. It is ensuring the money from the Hundred is channelled in keeping red-ball cricket alive that is the challenge.