Comment and Analysis | 10th May 2010
Cricket writer Jon Culley examines the case for and against 'City Franchises'.
Excuse me if you already read about this on the way to the polling station, but in case you were distracted by more weighty matters (depending on your point of view) and did not notice, the idea of a Twenty20 cricket league involving city rather than county teams is back on the agenda.
Representatives of Yorkshire, Warwickshire and Lancashire have met Lalit Modi (pictured above), the man behind the rise of the Indian Premier League, to discuss the success of the IPL and how it might be replicated in England, with the notion of city-based franchises in the forefront of their thoughts.
A similar idea surfaced two years ago, after a proposal from MCC chief executive Keith Bradshaw and Surrey chairman David Stewart to create nine franchises based on Test-match grounds. But it was knocked on the head without even reaching formal ECB discussion level after a leak to the Press stirred up angry opposition.
Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, described some of the Bradshaw-Stewart proposals as "frankly ludicrous" and affirmed that "franchise sport has simply never worked in the UK."
But the ECB's failure to introduce an alternative tournament to rival the IPL as a revenue-generator - something which might have happened had their relationship with Sir Allen Stanford not gone so embarrassingly wrong - has led to fresh, independent moves to set one up.
Again it is being driven by the Test-hosting counties, who feel that the present system for allocating international fixtures in England, with nine grounds bidding for a maximum of seven Test matches per season, does not provide them with enough income, particularly at a time when many of the venues are in the throes of expensive redevelopment.
The difference this time is that the investment for any new league is likely to come from India with the controversial Modi, who is currently fighting corruption allegations relating to his running of IPL, expected to be a significant mover.
Likewise, much of the broadcasting revenue would come from the sub-Continent. The venues might be in England and some of the players might be English but, in effect, it would be not so much an English Premier League as an IPL clone that just happens to be played here.
The meeting with Modi in March, which involved Stewart Regan and Colin Povey, respective chief executives of Yorkshire and Warwickshire, along with Lancashire's honorary treasurer, David Hodgkiss, was described as "a fact-finding mission" by those involved.
Among the 'facts' to emerge, however, was that a new league would supposedly guarantee between $3 million and $5 million (£2-3.3 million) per year for each venue, which has made the idea particularly attractive to the likely beneficiaries. Test counties seem open to discussing the possibility of staging such a tournament.
The meeting has also led to several threatened lawsuits after Clarke sent emails to the Indian Board of Control accusing Modi of planning to destroy the structure of English cricket, a charge he has hotly denied.
But if the idea does go ahead, it could mean English cricket fans getting used to another substantial change, watching teams playing not as traditional counties but as IPL-style franchises. It is envisaged that the current IPL franchise-holders would bid for franchises in the English competition and that nine or 10 entirely new teams would be created, their composition determined, as in the IPL, by an auction of players.
So, instead of turning up, say, to see Yorkshire play Lancashire at Headingley, supporters might find themselves watching a Leeds team against one with Manchester in its title.
Likewise, Edgbaston might become home to Birmingham, the Rose Bowl could host Southampton, a Newcastle team might play at Chester-le-Street and Lord's and the Oval could each stage fixtures involving London teams.
The worry for county cricket is not that the two competitions could not co-exist - although it is difficult to see how the expanded domestic Twenty20 could survive - but that the ECB will dig in their heels, outlaw the inter-city event and threaten to suspend English players who take part. That could have very serious consequences for the counties and for the England Test team.
Setting aside all that, however, the question already being asked is this: will anyone actually turn up to watch, particularly once the initial novelty value has worn off? As Giles Clarke has pointed out, quite correctly, it is "tradition and history" that persuade English supporters to return week-in, week-out, whether to watch cricket, football or rugby.
Before you conclude that no one will watch a cricket team other than a county, however, it is worth looking at the evolution of IPL in a little more than superficial detail.
Sceptics in India, too, wondered whether Chennai Super Kings or Deccan Chargers or Mumbai Indians would be dismissed by the public as artificial teams playing meaningless cricket. Three years on, however, the IPL's popularity appears to be growing, rather than petering out. Television audiences for IPL3 are reportedly 35 per cent up on IPL1, with the event likely to generate a profit of around £135 million, again up 35 per cent.
Furthermore, there is evidence that fans who turned up initially to watch their favourite players are beginning to ally themselves to teams, with replica shirts sales booming, particularly among supporters of the Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata teams.
Given that every sporting competition in the world, no matter how long established, had to start somewhere and create its own history, perhaps this is an idea, with so many counties struggling to break even let alone turn a profit, that should be given a chance.
Jon Culley writes on cricket for The Independent and about sports books for The Sports Bookshelf website.