The Hundred – A Marketing View On Cricket’s New Format

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I’ve no idea who first said this, but it feels relevant for me whenever I see something new launched. I grab my marketing hammer and try too whack every nail I see.

Especially when that nail is controversial and causing normally mild-mannered chaps from the home counties to lose their shit.

A problem shared is a problem halved.

Again, another line of unknown origin and also relevant as I’m going to share my problem of looking at everything as a nail with you.

What’s this particular nail? I’m going to walk you through my thought process about The Hundred, the new form of cricket that’s launching today in England and Wales.

Don’t worry if you’re not a cricket fan, this is a marketing post. I’m going to pull apart the new concept through the lens of my DSI Process – that’s Data, Strategy and Implementation – and potentially make myself look like an idiot by predicting if the competition will be a success.

But first, some background

A Brief Beginners Guide To Cricket

Cricket is a beautiful game, but one that comes with a lot of complexity.

Before you even think about the rules, what’s happening and why, you need to know what form of cricket is being played.

WTF? Yeah, I know.

At the moment there are three forms of cricket played around the world.

  1. Test / First Class cricket – this is often called the boring cricket (it’s not) and is the one where they wear white clothes, use a red ball and it goes on for 4 or 5 days depending on who is playing. Amazingly, after all that time it can end in a draw too. Go figure, as our American cousins say.
  2. One Day / List A cricket – this is usually 50 overs per team and played over about 7 hours. Sometimes it kicks off mid afternoon and is played under floodlights at the end of the game and other times it starts in the morning and finishes around 6pm. Either way it’s usually more entertaining than Test Match cricket (even though purists will lynch me for saying that).
  3. Twenty20 / T20 cricket – back in 2003 the new kid on the block launched. They shortened a one day game from 50 overs per team to 20, meaning the whole game could be played in 3 hours, thus allowing it start after work and school and bring in fans to the game. Because of the truncated nature of the game, it’s often described as the most entertaining form of cricket and the one where you’ll see the ball smashed miles and wickets tumbling. More on how this came about later.

Now, back to the DSI marketing framework and a look at The Hundred, cricket’s newest format.

What’s the Problem? Data Stage

The people who run cricket in England and Wales, the ECB, spotted a problem. Cricket was becoming a sideshow to huge swathes of people in the country.

The reasons for this are legion.

State schools have stopped playing the sport, the big games are on Sky TV behind a paywall, it’s confusing to newcomers and takes years to fully understand what is happening and, in large parts, has next to no one watching the games.

I speak as a former marketing manager for a professional team in England, Durham. I know that most games are attended by a handful of usually elderly people. Who else has endless days that need filling? No one, that’s who.

T20 was launched specifically to counter this problem. An evening game that brought in new spectators based on research. I’ll come back to T20 in the strategy section.

But, for now, it’s safe to say that Data phase was a success and one I’d give a score of 8/10. Attendances are on the slide, take up at junior level is low and the amateur game is screaming for assistance.

I can’t give it 10/10 as some of the research has a feel of something that was set up to prove the outcome they already knew. This is, of course, just conjecture on my behalf but having consulted in a number of companies where the research is done after a decision is made, you get a nose for these things.  

One example – the often quoted fact about cricket being difficult to understand, especially for younger audiences, is used as a negative. Indeed, I started this post by saying how complex cricket can be.

But there’s a counter point. Andy Zaltzman, a comedian and cricket statistician (there’s two jobs you didn’t expect one person to have) makes the great point about kids computer games. Try playing Call of Duty or one of the other major titles that make gazillions… they’re MASSIVELY complicated.

Just saying ‘The youth of today wants simple’ doesn’t resonate with the young uns I’ve had in focus groups. They want something that matters to them, and if it matters enough, they’ll work it out.

But this is speculation on my part. I haven’t seen the research but what I’ve read makes me think it’s been a solid process.

Data: 8/10

What is The Hundred? Strategy Phase

This is where it gets interesting.

The ECB has already solved this problem once, back in 2003 when they launched T20.

(Side note: Watch this clip from my podcast with Stuart Robertson, the man who invented T20 and see what he has to say about the launch of The Hundred, which are much more relevant than mine.)

T20 came along and was a roaring success. An entertaining game, played in the evening that drew in crowds in numbers not seen for years, maybe ever.

I still remember the looks on faces in our office when we saw the presales numbers… incredible! I wish I could claim it was all down to my marketing genius, but, alas, it was much to do with the great work that the ECB did centrally.

In recent years the London grounds have been putting up the HOUSE FULL signs for every T20 game – in short, people love it.

But the counties – the 18 professional teams – killed the golden goose. Like any junkie hooked on a substance, they demanded more and more of the game because it was so successful.

This overkill brought a new problem. The first T20 tournament was played over 18 days. Now it was spread over months.

This meant that the world’s best players couldn’t come and play in the competition, like they did in Australia and India.

The scheduling meant that not every ground was selling out and there were a lot of T20 games that had an attendance like any other game (i.e. dreadful). Plus, different forms of cricket were being played at the same time. It was very confusing.

Worse still, as attendances fell in some places the answer was obvious… MORE GAMES of course.

(Someday someone will look at one of the world’s richest leagues, the NFL, and work out that they’re so successful because of scarcity – it’s a short season and that drives the value. But I digress.)

So we end up in place where the same problem needs solving 20 years down the line. Which is a little awkward for The Hundred as it’s currently being promoted as the future of cricket.

But there’s something else at play here.

With 18 professional teams in England and Wales (well, 17 in England and 1 in Wales) the general thinking is that we have too many professional teams. Discussions have been going on for years about trying to reduce the number to drive up standards but they never go anywhere. Why?

Well, the ECB is a members’ organisation and the members are the 18 counties. Moreover each one has a long history, thousands of members of their own and many a good reason to keep playing cricket.

Faced with this strategic conundrum, did they:

  1. Relaunch T20 and have the same issues as before?
  2. Cut the counties to a sensible number – 10 or 8 was often discussed – but have to get turkeys to vote for Christmas?

The answers is: neither.

Instead the ECB came up with option C (some would argue it’s closer to option F or G) and invented another new format of cricket: The Hundred.

So what is it? It’s still cricket, but designed to appeal to anew market. They’ve taken the research into what people don’t like about cricket and tried to simplify the game.

No more confusing ‘overs’ of 6 balls each, it’s just 100 balls that counts down to zero. Any idiot can understand that.

They’ve also used this new format to sort of reduce the counties… they’ve left all 18 playing First Class, One Day and T20 – with the One Day competition running at the same time, but invented eight entirely new teams for The Hundred, based loosely around big cities.

Ignore the fact that these ‘new’ teams will play at existing grounds, using existing players because they’ve mixed the players up via a draft system, recruited some overseas players for a short tournament and stuck them in new, brightly coloured clothes.

When I’m feeling generous, I’m giving this strategy 5/10. Some days I can only go as far as 3/10. Why? Well, a few reasons.

I’ve already explained that I disagree with the takeaways from the research about the kids not liking stuff they don’t understand. But I haven’t seen their research and maybe they’re right. My main issue is the lack of choice.

Michael Porter (is it even a strategy blog if you don’t mention Porter?) says that strategy is about deciding what you’re not going to do.

Porter on strategy

You could argue, as Stuart does in the video above, that the ECB have taken a bold choice to be different. However, I believe they’ve fudged it massively – and for political rather than sporting reasons.

If reducing the number of counties was the right thing to do for the future of cricket in this country, have the guts to do it.

If keeping 18 pro teams was the right thing to do, then throw your resources behind that.

Don’t try and ride both horses at the same time.

They’ve tried to be overly clever and not addressed the core problem – too much average cricket being played in front of too few people. What they’ve done is add a layer on top with The Hundred.

I have no doubt it will be explosive and exciting. And I’m damn sure I’ll be watching. But it feels like the wrong question has been answered.

Instead of answering “how do we attract more people and new people to watch cricket” they’ve answered “how do we attract the best players to a short tournament without upsetting the counties”

Attracting new fans initially felt secondary, until we got closer to the implementation stage, which I’ll discuss in the next section. Attracting ‘new fans’ is noble and a big strategic choice (yay!) but also hugely high risk.

Cricket, more than most sports, is built on its traditions. Of course, we need to modernise and move forward, but when you own a heritage brand, you have to act differently.

HSBC can’t behave the way Monzo does, because it’s got years of heritage, stakeholders and investors. The reason they keep First Direct going in the UK is to allow them more flexibility at be more nimble. But you don’t go into an HSBC branch to talk to First Direct. The person answering the phone isn’t the person taking your money over the HSBC counter. They keep a level of separation between the two brands to avoid contamination.

The Hundred doesn’t really have that.

Managing a heritage brand is brilliant and a ball ache (technical term). You have to evolve and move along with changing tastes, but always keep the spirit of the brand intact.

Imagine if the All Blacks ditched their black to make it easier for young people to see them during evening matches. Or Liverpool FC became Liverpool Vikings to attract more Scandinavian fans…

The Hundred, in my opinion, moves so far from the spirit of the brand, that it’s in danger of losing itself.

Strategy 4/10
(Yes, I’ve fudged my strategic choice and gone down he middle of 3 and 5)

Implementation

The implementation bit of The Hundred is probably the hardest to analyse. Not because it hasn’t started (it launches on the day of publishing – 21 July 2021) but because it’s so polarised.

I look at what’s happening and either love it or hate it.

Love – they ran a draft to ramp up excitement, get players into squads and bring a bit of stardust to the games. It’s not a new idea but one rarely used in British sport and I watched the whole thing. A draft is essentially a fancy version of kid picking teams in the playground, yet they made it into compelling TV. They executed it brilliant with the broadcast partner Sky Sports.

Hate – they’re throwing out a lot of cricketing language because it doesn’t resonate with new fans. ‘Wickets’ are being replaced by ‘outs’ for reasons that don’t make much sense and overs have gone to be replaced by the umpire holding up a white card every 5 balls. Nope, me neither.

It feels like tennis deciding to score games on a 1 to 4 system rather than the quaint but archaic 15, 30, 40, game system (that only makes sense if you’re a history geek and research where it came from like I did) because the kids don’t get it.

Love – the launch of a women’s competition of equal standing as the men’s tournament and featuring the best players in the world.

Hate – fans are being instructed not to sign Sweet Caroline – a song that’s become England’s de facto sporting anthem over the last 12 months – because someone thinks it’s too blokey (please show your workings on this one ECB).

Love – that the women’s prize money is the same as the men’s, allowing the ECB to talk up the competition as really promoting women’s cricket.

Hate – the fact that the ECB have had to admit that, despite the prize money being equal, the female players will receive a massive amount less than their male counterparts. (That’s £24,000 to £100,000 for the men, £3,600 to £15,000 for the women…)

Love – they’re splurging a stack of cash, rumoured to be £50m, to bring this to life. T20 was launched on what we thought was a big budget of £500,000! So they’re taking it seriously and many reputations have been staked on its success.

Hate – the ECB have been sat on reserves of around £70m pre pandemic, while many counties were struggling. They’ve used that cash to effectively bribe the counties into accepting the new game and teams by paying them a stack of cash to shut up. Surely this money could’ve been released to counties to invest rather than leave them in debt?

Love – pre pandemic they had attracted the biggest names in cricket to take part and it promised to be a star-studded competition (many have backed out because of Covid, but that’s not something the ECB can be blamed for). Even with a bag full of cash, that’s no easy thing to do. Players now can earn millions in short carers and play where suits their schedule, ambition and finances. This was impressive.

Hate – The 18 counties will continue playing One Day cricket, just with players who didn’t make it into The Hundred and their academies  / second teams to make up the numbers. Who the hell wants to watch that? It’s also another thing to fit into a packed season already – something has to give.

Love – they’ve got a broadcast deal that brings cricket back to free to air with the BBC having the rights to some matches with Sky Sports. This is a big deal and brings cricket back to a much, much bigger audience.

Hate – if the CricInfo article is correct, the BBC had signed up to a T20 tournament and all the press lines we’ve been fed about needing The Hundred to get back on terrestrial TV might not be quite true.

I could go on.

What is fair to say is that when the ECB planned the launch of The Hundred, they hadn’t factored in a pandemic – who did? And the launch was pushed back a year. They have managed to juggle that admirably and keep up interest in the competition, allow England players to turn out and should launch with a lot of fanfare today.

It is, however, too early to score the implementation. There seems to be as many own goals as worldies into the top corner and it’s hard to know what the general public will think of it.

Implementation ?/10

Baseball Caps For Cricket

I’m not just a grumpy cricket traditionalist. I will regularly sit and watch hours of test match cricket, often days, much to the annoyance of the rest of the family, and I love it.

But I LOVE one day and T20 cricket. One Day cricket is probably my least favourite, but it’s a bit like being asked to pick a favourite child. They’re all great in different ways.

I’m just a mad keen fan of everything cricket and my life’s ambition is to watch an international in every test playing nation (so far England, Ireland, India, New Zealand have been ticked off that list). Yes, I’m that sad

Cricket needs innovation.

It needs to appeal to a broader range of spectators. It’s almost criminal that a sport beloved in the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent can’t attract many fans from these communities to watch the game in England.

Go to Yorkshire or Leicestershire, Lancashire or London, places with huge Asian and Caribbean populations and marvel at just how white and male the audience is. Honestly, you’ve got to work hard to be this bad…

Cricket needs something to push it forward, I’m just not sure The Hundred is that thing.

I’ll be watching The Hundred and jumping around as the ball is crashed about the place.

But the changes to the game feel gimmicky – like when New Zealand tried Cricket Max and made just too many changes to keep the fans interested. It was mothballed.

I’m reminded of the time that William Hague was leader of the Tory party and, in a vain attempt to be a man of the people and reach younger audiences, his team suggested he wear a baseball hat with HAGUE written on it.

William Hague in a baseball cap

The pushback was immediate and entirely predictable. Henceforth, ‘put a baseball cap on it’ has ben part of the marketing lexicon for brands trying to reach dem yoots by sticking on some new clothes without ever going through proper brand evolution.

The Hundred feels like the HAGUE cap for cricket.

The constant drip, drip messaging that this isn’t for cricket fans feels like a mistake too. Sure, there is a generation of cricket fans who will hate it and that’s fine.

But the messaging has been strongly that this is about new fans and if you don’t like the move from wickets to outs, then tough, don’t come.

That’s great, but surely a better way to fill a ground would be to bank on 50% of it going to people who know how to get there, appreciate what might be going on, tell their mates they need to attend and generate a buzz.

That’s how it worked when T20 was launched. It’s a playbook that’s been used successfully to launch a format and take it to world domination…. So why rip that up now?

Will it be exciting? Yes.

Will be people show up to watch? Yes

Will people watch on TV? Of course

Will it save cricket? I don’t think so.

Is it the future of cricket? I suspect that it will roll on for the duration of the broadcast contract, before being quietly taken out the back and hit over the head with a shovel.

In conclusion

I’m as certain as I can be that the Data stage has been done well, although they might have set out to prove the points they needed to support the strategic decision that had already been made. I don’t know, but there definitely is a problem that needs solving.

Will the Implementation stage be any good? Yeah I think so. Exciting cricket, something of a curiosity and people starved of fun over the last 18 months will give it a go. And some of the pre launch activity has been incredibly good.

But if the strategy phase is wrong, a great execution won’t save it. And I wonder if this is where the mistake has been made.

I hope The Hundred does well, I’m just not convinced it will last.

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