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Natwest T20 Blast

The IPL had gotten the BCCI billions. The BBL has gotten CA millions. Those numbers will only increase for both and both are among the highest attended sports leagues globally. The PSL, CPL and BPL follow the IPL mould (sort of like Mini-IPLs) and are only growing. The T20 Challenge (in South Africa) and Super Smash (in New Zealand) are more like BBL Lites. However, there’s one domestic T20 league which doesn’t conform to either the IPL or BBL mould: England’s T20 Blast.

The Blast in its current form came into being in 2014 (before, it was the T20 Cup, then the Friends Life T20 Cup). There are 18 teams split among two groups of nine here. The teams are sorted geographically, and have been the same since the inception of the tournament. However, T20s in England stretch back to the creation of the format in 2003.

The competition format has been essentially the same since, with the only things changing since then are the groups and the branding. The 18 teams are the 18 counties with first class status. Of those 18, only 9 have test standard grounds (Durham is one of them, but they have been stripped of the right to host test matches because of their financial troubles). None of those stadiums have a capacity greater than 30,000.

Only one cricket worthy stadium in the country has a capacity more than that (the London Olympic Stadium has a capacity of 60000). As a result, the average attendance numbers are eschewed to make them seem quite low. But when other half of the games are played at stadiums with a capacity of under 10000, the average attendance is likely to be not much higher.

The Blast is different from every other T20 league in the world in that it runs concurrently to the county championship and the One Day Cup. There have been instances of teams playing all three formats in a week. The reason for this is that when the ECB tried to put all the games in a block, the whole tournament was rained out.

England is unique among the test nations in that there’s only a certain time frame as to when cricket can be played, and it’s a small country so if the weather is bad for a week, it’ll be bad across the country. So the ECB have, ever since, decided not to risk the majority of the games being washed out by spreading the competition over most of the summer.

They also set conducted a survey and the results of it (where a majority of the people preferred a predictive schedule and games on Fridays) resulted in most of the games being played on Fridays, for most weeks between May and August. The games are also tried to be played in under an hour and a half, and the ECB is very strict on going into overtime.

The semi finals and the final are played on the same day, called Finals Day, and has been a staple of the English summer calendar since 2003. It’s been held at Edgbaston 8 times (including every Blast Finals Day), twice at Trent Bridge, twice at the Ageas Bowl, once at The Oval and once at Sofia Gardens. Finals Day is usually the most attended domestic games in the English summer.

Leicestershire are the most successful team in English T20 history, having won it thrice. Only Northamptonshire and Hampshire have also won it more than once.

Some of the teams have names (Warwickshire are the Birmingham Bears, Northamptonshire: The Northants Steelbacks, etc) and some don’t (Surrey, Middlesex, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Hampshire and Somerset). There’s usually no point to having a name.

The problems with the Blast is that it isn’t nearly as widely covered in television as even the BPL is, much less the IPL and BBL. Since many games are played at the same time and Sky (the ECB’s broadcaster) only have so many resources, only certain games are deemed worthy of being covered by TV.

Every game is at least streamed with one camera though. It also isn’t as profitable to the ECB. While Surrey (perhaps the richest domestic board in the world) argue that the competition is worth a lot more than the ECB offer for it, many at the ECB believe that a more BBL-styled league is the way to go in terms of profit. The English counties have a combined debt in the hundred millions, a highly profitable domestic competition will definitely alleviate much of that debt. But going BBL-style has its own problems.

For starters, an 8 team tournament will only include 7, possibly even 6, of the counties. There’s no doubt that there will be 2 teams representing London and one for each of Birmingham (Warwickshire), Manchester (Lancashire), Leeds (Yorkshire), Nottingham (Nottinghamshire), Southampton (Hampshire) and Cardiff (Glamorgan).

Which counties the London teams represent is dependent on their home ground. One will be Lords, so it will represent the MCC (although Middlesex play their home games there, they don’t own the ground, the MCC does). The other London stadium will either be The Oval (which will represent Surrey), or the London Olympic Stadium (which will likely just be extra cash for the ECB).

The 8 counties likely to be a part of the city based league in some capacity have won just 6 out of the 14 summer T20 tournaments in England (2 for Hampshire, 1 each for Surrey, Lancashire, Middlesex and Warwickshire). 3 of them have never won it. Of the 10 other teams, 5 haven’t won it. Those 5 teams have, combined, won 8 editions.

If performance was the prerequisite, then those 5 would be a part of it. The prerequisite is clearly population and revenue. But Yorkshire almost never fill up Headingley, and Glamorgan has some of the worst attendances in England and Wales. Essex, Sussex, Somerset, Kent and Northamptonshire manage to sell out most of their home games.

They fill grounds with capacities of about 5000 people, with much smaller population bases than those 5. Glamorgan, Yorkshire and, even occasionally Nottinghamshire and Hampshire, have crowds smaller than 5000 for a lot of their home games. Instead of rewarding the smaller counties for filling up their grounds, the plan for a city based league will punish them just for being smaller, since they will play no part in it. It’ll make the rich richer (since they will get all the revenue from the better marketed and better TV rights deal of a city based league) while making the poor, poorer.

The ECB encouraged the smaller counties to accept this proposal by giving them financial benefits. Another argument the ECB make for the city based league is that it can be played in a block, with no international cricket in that time, so the international stars from England and elsewhere can play the entire tournament.

They’ve also said that the smaller counties will still play a smaller tournament at their grounds in a 10-18 team tournament that will run concurrent to the big one. But the counties will have to field second and maybe even third string sides and will definitely be without their best players, as they’ll all be playing in the city based league.

It will be no better than a second XI competition, and the people won’t watch that. This could be very good in the short term, true. It could seem a very attractive proposal to a county as desperate as Durham, but to the better off smaller counties like Somerset, Essex and Kent, it’s an absurd idea.

It threatens to upset their revenues from games and is a step away from making them self-sufficient, something which the ECB have wanted the counties to be for ages. The county that wants the T20 League the most is Warwickshire. They have a lot of debts and a T20 league would bring them huge profits as they’ll feature prominently in it. Glamorgan would also love that dearly.

A compromise between both ideas would be two divisions rather than the current two groups, with more media and TV coverage in the top division, much like the County Championship. It will improve competition by having the 9 best teams together, and they can leave the possibility for every team to win, perhaps by having the top 5 in Division 1 and the top 3 in Division 2 qualify for the quarter finals.

Promotion and relegation could be the bottom two in Division 1 and the top two in Division 2 switch divisions. All the teams will have their players, the young talent in each county will play for their county and the ECB will get their TV coverage and likely higher profits.

A big problem that faces English cricket currently is the lack of young kids watching it on TV. Sky Sports owns the broadcasting rights for all England cricket and it’s a pay-to-view channel. The BBL is on free-to-air TV while all other cricket in Australia is not.

CA saw the benefit for having their league on free-to-air, so they sacrificed some money from the TV rights so more people could watch it. Many people are advocating for the ECB to do the same. Many things that the ECB provide would likely not be possible without Sky’s money, and Sky has is the highest quality broadcaster of cricket in the world. It would be strange to see a T20 on TV without all the features and gimmicks that Sky provide there.

But people need to be able to stumble upon the game on TV and decide for themselves if it’s worth watching without spending money. A fair few people probably can’t afford a long subscription. Putting the T20 competition on free-to-air at least, regardless of which competition it is, will increase the attention the sport receives in England by the average man on the street.

With its smaller grounds and different culture, the Blast is perhaps the most unique T20 competition in the world. Games in front of a packed crowd of 5000 people does not happen anywhere else in the world.

There’s a sense of intimacy at these types of games. With so few people yet still the vibrant atmosphere of the packed ground, everyone can feel closer to the players. The packed crowd of 20000 or so still happens, like whenever Surrey plays at The Oval or at Finals Day, but those small, night time games in the midlands to round off the working week is something different.

The competition has a predictive schedule over 3 months. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to watch your team’s next three games because they’re played over 4 days. They could be played over 3 weeks, so you have time to save up for those games. The Blast is far from a league, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad in its current form. It’s far from perfect, but with attendance figures at record highs for the third year in succession, maybe a complete redesign isn’t necessary.

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