EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE

From One To The Hundred – Sky Sports’ Cricket Boss On Establishing A Fresh Tournament And Attracting New Fans

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By Jonathan Easton

The launch of any new sports competition is always exciting.

Whether you’re a die hard fan of the sport or a newcomer, a new competition presents an avenue for entry to increase the fanbase – and make broadcasters plenty of money in the process.

We are on the eve of a brand new cricket tournament from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) – The Hundred.

Following a similar naming convention to T20, The Hundred is a descriptive term as much as it is the name of the competition. One hundred balls played over the course of roughly two-and-a-half hours promises to make the sport more digestible and friendly to newcomers.

The format has had its fair share of critics however. In attracting some of the top names in the sport for the month-long contest, a number of key players will be absent for the 50-over county games played by traditional clubs like Surrey and Sussex. Some have argued that the move is a means of quietly reducing the number of professional county clubs, while others have said that the ECB is putting “cash over cricket”.

It’s easier to see why traditionalists may be against The Hundred as it attempts to radically overhaul the game. The familiar ‘over’ of six balls, will be replaced by tens, while batsmen and the third man are now ‘batters’ and ‘thirds’. Men and women are also given equal footing, with being eight teams of each to play one another and prize money split equally between genders.

However, as Sky Sports director of cricket and NFL Bryan Henderson tells Digital TV Europe’s TV Watch podcast, “cricket is in really good shape at the moment… but it does however have a slight demographic problem.”

“It would be very easy to just pretend that the garden is completely rosy, but it is the ECB’s job and our job to stay ahead of the curve.”

The exec goes on to describe the average cricket fan as “typically white, male, mid-to-late-50s and ABC1 [upper middle, middle middle and lower middle class].”

Henderson says that he doesn’t want to alienate these fans and that Sky is “very grateful for that average”, but argues that “if you want to future-proof the sport you have to really start hitting those younger demographics, getting more women interested in the game and the same with diversity.”

“We hope that The Hundred will do that. It’s breaking down some barriers to entry, it’s simpler to understand, and we know that research suggests that a lot of people who might think about liking the sport are put off because they don’t understand it.”

But widening the net is not just about democratising the sport. More interest means more ‘butts on seats’ which means higher audiences and more money for the ECB, clubs and broadcasters.

A new cricket competition post-IPL

Looking at the proposals for The Hundred it is very easy to draw comparisons to the Indian Premier League.

The IPL is not only the most lucrative competition in cricket, but one of the most-watched and highest-valued sports competitions in the world. Local broadcaster Star India (owned by Disney) announced that the total viewing figures for the 2020 iteration translated to 383 billion minutes watched while the first match of the season was the highest ever opening day viewership for any sporting league in any country with 200 million viewers.

Media Partners Asia estimated that ad sales were up by 10 per cent to US$400 million for the competition – especially impressive considering that this was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hundred does not have the same sort of backing as the IPL, which is run (in an arguably corrupt way) by the BCCI. There is no chance that it will attract the kind of audience or achieve the sorts of ad revenues of the IPL, but the ECB will hope that if it can capture a fraction of its energy that it will be a success.

Henderson agrees with the assessment that The Hundred hopes to achieve similar results to the IPL in becoming a compelling competition which attracts more than just the die-hards of the sport.

“I remember the first time I switched on the IPL and just very simply the gear that the teams played in was bright and bold and you thought ‘wow, this is something different’. Ultimately, television coverage can’t really lie – you can only cover what you’re there to cover and if the product is good then the television coverage follows that.”

This is complemented by a brand identity which is similarly bold and modern, with significant contrasts to the somewhat conservative appearance of county cricket.

A new broadcast strategy

While aesthetics are one thing, one of the key differences between The Hundred and other cricket tournaments broadcast by Sky is where it is going to be shown. Most matches will be on the core Sky Sports Cricket channel – which is being rebranded as Sky Sports The Hundred for the duration of the tournament – with key fixtures being shown on Sky Sports Main Event. In addition, matches will be broadcast on the flagship Sky One channel while other matches – including all women’s matches – will be made available for free either on YouTube or on the BBC.

Henderson explains that “when you’re launching a new competition you have to have different metrics for success” and that viewers will likely not have an “immediate affinity” with the newly created teams for the tournament.

“The whole point in year one I think is to get the competition as out there as possible. We can’t be completely reliant on normal tricks like viewing upgrades and viewing figures. If we fast-forward a month, what we’re really looking to achieve is an appetite for year two, in the simplest terms.”

The exec adds that “opening up the distribution” is a part of Sky’s ‘cricket is for everybody’ campaign that is aimed at breaking up that original hegemony of traditional cricket fans. “It’s all tied in with just trying to get increased exposure for the competition and to try to hit some of those demographics we spoke about earlier.”

This new approach also extends to the look and presentation of The Hundred. Along with the bold idents and branding, Sky is touting its player avatar technology as a dynamic tool for engaging with modern audiences.

Using similar technology to its golf coverage, Sky has used motion capture technology to create fully accurate 3D models of players which will appear to viewers in the studio for pundits to analyse.

“Every year it’s my job to make the Sky Cricket coverage better,” Henderson explains.”I looked at the Sky Golf coverage and for a couple of years now they’ve been using augmented reality volumetric capture. It’s one of the best, if not the best, advances in sport I’ve seen in the last few years. The same team that did that for Sky came to me and said ‘what about doing something similar for The Hundred’, and my immediate reaction was absolutely.”

Henderson describes the avatars as “a bit of fun” and admits that he’s “not completely sure if it’s going to work” but says that “the benefits for our linear broadcast are pretty obvious.”

Clearly, both Sky and the ECB have invested heavily in this new competition. English cricket doesn’t need a full reboot to a dramatic extent like the introduction of the English Premier League in 1992, but there are clearly enough concerns from the parties in charge that this shot in the arm is being prescribed.

Even the most cynical cricket fan would be exaggerating if they were to compare The Hundred to the collapsed proposals for football’s European Super League, but both sports are undergoing serious changes. The fact that The Hundred is a concoction of the ECB already gives it a stronger foundation than the ESL, but critics have argued that it is a money-making exercise designed at targeting new fans instead of cricketing loyalists.

Suffice to say that Sky and the ECB are walking a tightrope. However, the prospect of a successful new competition is enough to make it worth paying attention to, whether you want it to succeed or fail.

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