Here at Hoops, we’re not just interested in the here and now of sport, we want to know what the future holds as well. So we’re going to be talking to people involved in the industry to find out how they think their sport is going to evolve. This week, we met Lancashire Cricket Board managing director Bobby Denning.
For a sport so entrenched in its own traditions, cricket has undergone something of a revolution in recent years.
First-class cricket, for so long considered the pinnacle of the sport both in terms of its popularity and the challenge it provides its participants, is facing a challenge for supremacy from the new kid on the block – twenty20.
The differences are stark. First-class cricket is spread over four days, five at international level where it is dubbed a Test match. For twenty20 the clue is in the name – 20 overs with the bat for each team, meaning a game finishes in under four hours.
“The most important thing is to give people a positive first experience of the sport”
While the professional sport decides how best to divide resources and attention between formats, grass roots administration faces a similar, yet even more profound task.
With children spending more time in front of computers and games consoles and less time playing on streets and in fields, the task of making a sport attractive to the dwindling market has never been more crucial, nor more difficult.
Cricket, for so long the summer pass-time of athletic young boys, faces a fight to retain relevance. For how many youngsters are willing to put eight hours of their Saturday into actual sport, when they can watch it on television without moving a finger?
— Lancs Cricket Board (@LancsCB) February 9, 2017
One man among many leading that battle for hearts and minds is Bobby Denning, managing director of the Lancashire Cricket Board.
“If we’re looking at recruiting people into the game for the first time we have to bear in mind that they may want something different to what has been offered by the sport previously,” he told Hoops.
“If you want to retain people in the game, they may not want to play 40/50 over games on a Saturday, they may want to play twenty20 cricket, or indoor cricket or a more informal version of the game.
“Previously the route into cricket was through your local cricket club, or by taking it up at school.
“The difference now is that there are a whole host of different formats and different versions of the game to encourage people to get involved that probably weren’t there three, four, five years ago.”
These changes are being brought about as part of a five-year plan orchestrated by the England Cricket Board – Cricket Unleashed.
Its ultimate aim is to raise participation in the sport, both in terms of people playing and watching cricket.
To do so it is targeting widening the sport’s appeal “outside of the traditional fan base”, addressing the “perception” that the sport is “complicated and confusing” and “competing harder” with other sports for new participants.
“The most important thing is to make sure that people have a positive experience of the sport from their first experience of it,” said Denning.
“We’re working with our clubs and leagues to make sure they’re as sustainable as possible, bringing in new players and volunteers.
“We’re looking at how we can continue to grow women’s and girl’s cricket, how we can grow working with our south Asian communities and our disabled communities.
“We’re going to be promoting come-and-have-a-go-style cricket, as opposed to you having to rock up on a Saturday and play for six or seven hours – making cricket accessible for as many people as possible.”
Attracting people to the sport is only one part of the problem though – it is keeping people involved and turning them into regular contributors that will secure cricket’s long-term health.
“We want to make cricket accessible for as many people as possible”
And that will in turn be partly be in the hands of the success of the professional sport, which is crying out for an influx of regular attendees to domestic and international fixtures, with figures falling globally.
“Ultimately it’s a great product. T20 cricket captures the imagination and brings people to watch matches, players enjoy playing it – it’s a great spectacle,” said Denning.
“But then you have the traditional formats – four day County cricket, five-day Test matches – which are equally as attractive.
“I’d encourage people to come and watch the sport, because if you want to learn a bit about what cricket is all about then getting down to a T20 Blast fixture at Old Trafford it’s a great spectacle and a great way of capturing interest.”
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