What this ticket tells us about the modern matchday experience
The elderly steward manning the car park entrance at Essex County Cricket Club is always unfailingly polite.
England’s national sport has forever been supported by such genteel characters; not only as paying customers but as helpful workers doing pin-money jobs.
You never know, in my dotage, I may apply to be a steward myself, just for an involvement in the club and a sense of ‘giving back’. My only concern is that, at county level, the sport may barely exist by then. More of that later.
The issue at hand is not the agreeability of senior staff, the future of English cricket or even the first-innings fragility of the Essex top order. Mind you, the last of those was a real issue in 2018.
No, my concern is the ticket that was handed to me as I drove through.
The small brown stub was only ceremonial. I suspect UK law forces companies to hand over a symbol of payment for parking so, understandably, the club saved a few pounds by using up coupons left over from yesteryear.
This one looked decades old and read “ECCC”, “Day 4”, “Adult” across the top.
Then below “No play or seat guaranteed”.
That is nine words, more than half of which were devoted to telling the recipient what the club did NOT have to offer them for their purchase. Namely, the ability to watch the sport they paid to see and the ability to sit down while doing it.
This is not about Essex CCC, who are enjoying their best years in a generation both on and off the pitch. It is not even about cricket. They are merely illustrations.
And, anyway, this legalese is still carried on most tickets.
But it will be in the smallest of small print because the expectations of the average sports fan in 2018 are very different.
Back in the (presumably pre-digital) days of that ticket, you were turning up for the game and the game alone. Nothing else really mattered, certainly not the “customer experience”.
If the facilities were ropey, the seats dirty, the food like cardboard then so what? The contest was key and if Graham Gooch clubbed a hundred or John Lever scythed his way through the opposition openers us Essex fans went home satisfied.
But those were also the days when I was likely to get the Essex CCC team picture once a year in my edition of Tiger & Scorcher, essential reading for the discerning eight-year-old at the time. It went straight on my bedroom wall.
Cricket had a relatively high profile in late 1970s England. It was never as important as football but much more equitable than we see today. The likes of Ian Botham and Geoff Boycott et al were national figures while county players were recognisable and the game merited substantial newspaper coverage.
In contrast, this season only a couple of broadsheets covered a couple of games each day. And I remember some of the Essex players remarking that, only after the initial success of the T20 format 15 years ago, they were finally starting to be stopped in the streets around Chelmsford. They had been utterly anonymous before then.
Football is a ravenous beast that has consumed every other sport in the UK, and a significant portion of the summer that was previously preserved for the likes of cricket.
Yet, for my 11-year-old son, even watching football struggles to supersede the appeal of gaming right now. So cricket, with its unhurried subtlety, has no chance. When I have taken him to 50-over games, the highlight has been the interval between innings when supporters can play with their own ball-games on the outfield. Incidentally, I think this may be unique in sport and absolutely must be preserved as a gateway for young fans.
This situation has been long in the making. Aware of its slide, cricket began to innovate a new path back in the late 60s. First with limited-overs cricket then, in 1975, a World Cup and, after that, the highly-disruptive but hugely-modernising Kerry Packer ‘circus’. The introduction of T20 in 2003 was an instant shot in the arm. I went to the first game in the format at Lord’s. A crowd of 27,000 was the biggest attendance at the ground for a domestic fixture, outside of cup finals, for 60 years. England had invented a format that not only changed cricket but, you could argue, sparked a revolution in ‘shortened-sport’ that has since rippled out to tennis, boxing, golf and snooker among others.
But, as ever, we dawdled, allowing India and Australia to fully exploit the new genre. I have not seen an IPL or Big Bash fixture but I am told the matchday experience is exceptional. For example, the latter was boasting an array of high-quality rooftop bars last season for bu.
So, in 2020, the England and Wales Cricket Board will respond in the boldest fashion. “The Hundred” is a new format with new teams that has necessitated the rewriting of the county game’s constitution.
Reportedly, the target demographic is those unfamiliar with the game, especially families. One of the key weapons is the matchday experience.
Presumably, it means bigger stars, better promotion, better food with greater variety, fireworks, face-painting, ubiquitous wifi, the lot. The ever-growing marketing budget is enormous in cricketing terms.
Certainly, no-one will be emphasising what you will NOT get.
Although the devil of the detail is still being worked out, the Hundred should be properly disruptive to English cricket.
As a devotee of the game since childhood, I cherish its traditions and nuances. It is really the most wonderful waste of time ever invented.
But, as change is needed and turkeys rarely vote for Christmas, it was necessary to be audacious. My concerns are a) whether they had to ignore and alienate a county game that is much-loved, making numerous improvements and enjoying a mini-revival b) target non-cricket fans rather than bring the numerous lapsed and former fans back into the fold.
To me, it feels like brazenly putting all your chips on red because your mates have won big when in fact, after years of struggle, you have slowly but surely started to grow your pot with cautious yet continuous change.
It is the age-old choice between revolution and evolution. With both sides arguing that the other is doomed to failure.
While I have my own reservations, I hope the Hundred is successful and, as promised, develops ALL areas of the game in this country.
If not, I may have to find something else to do in retirement because cricket’s farm has been mortgaged.
However, we should remember that that County Championship/Test version is the sport’s long-form content, one that can go four or five days only to end in a draw.
And, as the cultural resistance of podcasts, Netflix and books illustrate, elongated formats have always been remarkably resolute.
Yet a high-quality customer experience is still a major contributing factor. Netflix is best-in-class at the promotion and aggregation of its content. Podcasts are now in their second ‘golden period’ thanks to seamless distribution, higher top-end quality and a low barrier to entry allowing every niche to be fulfilled. While books, especially physical ones, retain an intangible, aspirational quality. For heaven’s sake, their smell can be a selling point!
So yes, while the message of that old brown ticket, “forget the experience, just watch the game”, is not enough now, even for long-form content, you must still blend an engaging matchday with a sports occasion of significance and identity.
English cricket is at a crossroads right now but other sports, even the imperious football, may have to tread a tricky path in the decades to come if they do not find an enticing balance between experience and meaning.
Or, to put it another way, we have to coax my son off his console and into the stands well before I start stewarding the car park at Essex County Cricket Club.
*Any cricket fans out there disagree with my view on The 100, I have not found many backers so far but am I missing something?