ECB starts process for new T20 format but county official reveals ‘gun to head’ tactics

Ali Martin
The ECB is investigating the possibility of airing eight matches from its new tournament on free-to-air platforms. Photograph: Daniel L Smith/Getty Images for ECB

Colin Graves, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, has triggered the process required for the creation of the new domestic Twenty20 tournament from 2020 onwards, describing it as a “watershed moment” for the sport.

While there has been grumbling behind the scenes – one county official told the Guardian some of the tactics employed had been “gun to the head stuff” – only a postal ballot of the 41 ECB members remains before the ECB can sell television rights for the competition that will feature eight new regional teams and run during the school holidays.

There appears little doubt they will receive the 31 votes needed to effect the necessary changes to the constitution. The minor counties are expected to agree en masse and the ECB is guaranteeing £1.3m per year for each of the 18 first-class counties, who have had a number of their executives working on the T20 project’s various panels.

“Our members have seen the evidence for why the new T20 proposal is the right way to reach new audiences, create new fans and fuel the future of the game,” Graves said after the ECB board meeting on Tuesday at which the tournament was unanimously agreed.

“Together, we can now take a huge opportunity to not only create a deeper engagement with those who currently follow cricket but to attract a whole new audience and ensure the sustainability of our game. This is a watershed moment for us all to make the whole game stronger.”

The ECB has asked the counties not to publicly discuss the new tournament at this stage but John Faragher, the Essex chairman, broke ranks on Tuesday, telling BBC Sport: “I don’t deny that I am uncomfortable still. I need to take this to my board and the membership. If we believe the right thing for cricket is to go against this, we will do that.”

He then told the Daily Mail: “You are creating another level and it becomes elitist.”

With the public dissent minimal and all 18 counties having signed deeds that allow the ECB to sell the broadcast rights – the paperwork applied to all forms of cricket, thus making refuseniks unlikely – the governing body is now confident of instigating a bidding war and has held talks with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky, BT Sport and Eurosport, as well as Twitter and Facebook. While Sky has held the rights to English cricket for 11 years, its current £75m-a-year deal runs until 2019 and there is growing desire to have a free-to-air element once more.

Breaking up the single rights package into separate parts could in theory see the individual values take a hit, not least since exclusivity is one of Sky’s key selling points, but in the case of the new T20 tournament the ECB’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, is looking to make at least eight of the 36 matches free-to-air.

The belief is that widening the audience will mean commercial partners pay more in sponsorship while competition among broadcasters, as was seen when BT took the rights for cricket in Australia from Sky in a deal worth £80m over five years, will drive up the overall annual return. The ECB estimates the new T20 tournament will bring in £30m-£35m in revenues alone.

As well as speaking to all possible television broadcasters Harrison has also spent time in the US meeting Facebook and Twitter, discussing both marketing and their streaming options for the sport online, while also picking the brains of officials at Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL.

Yorkshire, meanwhile, have had their prospects of hosting international cricket in the future significantly boosted after they agreed a new financial package for the redevelopment of Headingley.

The club were facing the possibility of losing their hosting rights for both the 2019 World Cup and England’s Test and one-day matches from the following year onwards after Leeds City Council recently withdrew a £4m grant intended to assist in the building of a new stand at the Football Ground End.

Yorkshire are sharing the cost of the £35m project with neighbouring Leeds Rhinos and, sitting £25m in debt already, needed the grant to help fund their half of the work. But a club statement on Tuesday confirmed a deal has been struck with an unnamed financial institution and in partnership with the council.

While the club’s international status from 2020 and beyond was threatened if work did not begin this year, the Guardian understands that Headingley’s ability to host games in the proposed new Twenty20 tournament for 2020 would not have been affected.

Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, said: “I’m delighted we’ve found a solution that will ensure Headingley continues to enjoy full international sporting status. Subject to the final approval of the Council’s Executive Board (on 12 April), this will deliver the funding to redevelop the stadium in full. The money will be provided by a private financial services company at no cost to the council tax payer.”

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