That April feeling

A spectator works on a crossword puzzle, Gloucestershire v Northamptonshire, day four, County Championship, Bristol, May 25, 2016 Getty Images

The beginning of every new cricket season brings with it reports of county cricket in demise, accompanied by pictures of a solitary, cold supporter in a stand, surrounded by rows of empty plastic seats. It is the stereotypical image of county cricket watched by a man and a dog, and of its impending death - killed by public apathy and crippling financial issues. For as long as I can remember, people have been prophesying the death of county cricket. But how accurate is this picture? What really is the current health of county cricket?

One newspaper article last summer stated that things were so bad at Northamptonshire that they were "counting every loo roll" and that catering staff were having to act as ground staff.

It remains a mixed picture across the 18 counties. Some are struggling with enormous debts. Others - such as Surrey, Somerset and Sussex - are in much better health. At the time of writing, most counties hadn't posted last year's accounts, but from those who had, the picture appears less bleak than in the recent past - helped in part by a windfall of £1 million (approx US$1.25 million) from the ECB following lucrative Ashes years. Somerset recently announced an operating surplus of over £500,000 and Leicestershire - who up until 2014 had recorded substantial losses - have posted a small profit for the second year in a row.

"I tweeted that I was writing about the challenges facing county cricket, to which the Yorkshire chairman Steve Denison replied: "money, money, money, money, money"

Warwickshire, Yorkshire and Hampshire - among others - have millions of pounds of debts accrued from much-needed upgrades to their grounds and facilities. And then there's the situation with Durham, who had Test status taken off them after the ECB had to bail them out to the tune of £3.8 million.

Most counties are heavily reliant on the money from the ECB given as a share of broadcasting revenues, a figure that varies across counties but is in the region of £1.8 million a year. How sustainable is that? At the moment the ECB coffers are extremely healthy - in the last accounts, they had cash reserves of £73 million - but there will be leaner years ahead. The forecast is that the reserves will diminish given the uncertainty over the future landscape of international cricket and the possibility of fewer Tests, a reduced share of the ICC's income to the ECB, and unknowns about the worth of future broadcasting deals.

With county cricket's debts totalling over £150 million, money is not an issue about to go away any time soon. I recently tweeted that I was writing about the challenges facing county cricket, to which the Yorkshire chairman Steve Denison replied: "money, money, money, money, money".

Yorkshire's financial situation is particularly challenging. They have upwards of £20 million of debt and as well as servicing that, they are trying to find another £10 million for the refurbishment of the Football Stand End at Headingley. It is why they and most other counties welcome the idea of a new T20 competition from 2020 that would bring additional income, reportedly, of around £1.5 million. In football terms that sounds like a drop in the ocean; for a county cricket club it is a significant amount.

Over the 2016 season, attendances for the three domestic competitions totalled more than 1.59 million spectators - the highest season aggregate since the ECB was formed in 1997 and a 3% increase on 2015.

Undoubtedly crowds for County Championship matches are modest. Of course they are: there aren't many people who can give up eight hours a day for four consecutive days for 14 matches a season. Yet 2016 saw a 12% rise, from 513,693 in 2015 to 576,641. That is just the headline figure, though. The picture is varied across the country. For example, you will regularly see crowds of 2000 to 3000 watching Somerset at Taunton or Middlesex at Lord's. Elsewhere normal Championship attendances can be as low as a few hundred, although it should be noted that they tend to be higher than equivalent first-class matches in Indian or Australian domestic cricket.

"In 2016, attendances for the three domestic competitions totalled more than 1.59 million spectators - the highest season aggregate since the ECB was formed in 1997"

The last day of the 2016 season broke several attendance records. With the Championship going right down to the wire, resulting in a shoot-out between Middlesex and Yorkshire at Lord's, 22,000 people came through the gates over the four days - the highest attendance for a county game since 1996.

For the T20 Blast, Surrey regularly have a full house of over 20,000 watching on a Friday night at The Oval, and venues like Taunton, Hove and Chelmsford, albeit smaller, are almost always sold out for Friday evening. Last season Middlesex had sellout crowds of over 24,000 at Lord's against Surrey and Essex, and Edgbaston has seen packed houses on T20 Finals Day for the last few years.

There was a 1% drop in attendances at the Blast between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, although some of this can be put down to poor weather: 15 matches were abandoned in 2016 compared to just seven in 2015. In all, 815,000 spectators attended Blast matches in 2016, with an average attendance (excluding abandoned matches) of 6900. This is, of course, some way short of the average attendance at the 2016-17 BBL, which was reported as over 30,000 - although it must be remembered that many English grounds have capacities of below 10,000.

The number of bums on seats doesn't tell the whole story. Increasingly county cricket has found an audience via the various county social media accounts, the ECB's daily highlights videos, and the BBC's online commentary service, which attracts thousands of listeners a day.

Adam Mountford, the Test Match Special producer also responsible for overseeing the BBC's county commentary coverage, believes that "attendances at county games are not a true reflection of the actual levels of interest in the domestic game".

"One of my more pleasurable jobs," he says, "is to keep an eye on some of the feedback that comes in to the service, and I see how wide-reaching the engagement is. I also get to monitor a wonderful gizmo which lets me know who is following each page of the BBC website. It was fantastic to see the BBC county cricket page as the number one throughout that amazing climax to the 2016 season. That's more people clicking on the county live pages than the BBC news pages or the BBC football pages."

"How does cricket monetise those who engage with the sport but aren't actually paying for membership or a match ticket?"

County cricket does have to work harder than a lot of other professional sports to attract an audience. With television coverage behind a paywall, Championship matches played when people are at work, most of the focus of the governing body and the media on Team England, and cricket participation falling, clubs recognise they have to use every method available to them for promotion.

Yorkshire's commercial director Andy Dawson believes that those who engage with county cricket in a non-traditional way should be at the heart of Yorkshire's development strategy. "Although we are a members' club," he says, "we strongly believe we are a club for all our followers, however they choose to engage with us. We have 78k Twitter followers, 759,000 unique visitors to our website and 72,000 Facebook likes. We sell merchandise in 41 different countries outside the UK. There is a huge following for Yorkshire outside of those who come to games."

Glamorgan and Nottinghamshire have invested in cameras so that all their home matches can be streamed live on their website, and other counties are looking at introducing this too. The ECB, to its credit, has ensured that clips and highlights of every day's play are widely available.

All counties and the ECB report a year-on-year increase in the number of digital subscribers to their social media and video channels, which demonstrates there is a market for county cricket. But the question remains: is it enough? How does cricket monetise those who engage with the sport but aren't actually paying for membership or a match ticket?

It is well documented that participation in cricket in England has declined. Cricket isn't played in state schools - it is probably barely even talked about. This puts increasing pressure on county clubs and their respective county boards (the bodies responsible for the recreational game) to drive participation.

An excellent example of recognising the importance of re-engaging local communities is Leicestershire. Leicester has a population above 330,000, over 35% of that from the South Asian diaspora. In the past, those demographics haven't been reflected in the audiences at Grace Road. It is a challenge Wasim Khan recognised when he took over as chief executive in 2014.

"We may see a bidding war for television rights. But those who constantly call for cricket to return to terrestrial television will continue to be disappointed"

Leicestershire were then in the midst of limited success on the field and faced falling crowds and financial losses. The matches at Grace Road seemed to have no relevance to the local communities - even to the large cricket-loving Asian communities living and working close to the ground. As well as turning around the performance on the field and putting Leicestershire into profit again, Wasim has undertaken a number of initiatives.

"We established an inter-faith festival for the first time in 2016," he says, "and encouraged people of different faiths to come to Natwest T20 Blast matches by opening a multi-faith area at the ground. The club is also installing a prayer box ahead of the 2017 season."

Outreach programmes are needed more than ever because newspaper coverage of county cricket has been in steep decline. Regional reporters who used to be the mainstay of county coverage have been removed from daily reporting duties. With some notable exceptions, national newspapers look on county cricket as an irrelevance, citing lack of reader interest, space and budgets. The ECB has stepped in to help by funding a network of reporters who provide copy on each match, made available to a range of outlets.

On television, English domestic cricket only appears on pay-per-view through Sky, which guards viewing figures closely (Finals Day, it is understood, attracts around 500,000 viewers). Many consider the decision to put English cricket behind a paywall as the biggest factor in the game's decline. Yet, there was little interest from free-to-air broadcasters and Sky have invested heavily in the game. The money has kept county cricket afloat and has allowed for the development of the women's game and disability cricket. The quality of their coverage is second to none, too.

Sky's current deal runs to 2019 and it is expected that the new deals - currently out to tender - will see larger amounts of money coming into the game, particularly as BT Sport have now entered the market for cricket rights. We may see a bidding war for television rights. But those who constantly call for cricket to return to terrestrial television will continue to be disappointed.

All of the above points to a domestic game working hard to remain relevant and sustainable, and a game not quite in complete crisis as sometimes portrayed. But to ignore the magnitude of the challenges would be naive.

"County cricket is at something of a crossroads. Whether the proposed T20 tournament is the silver bullet the ECB is hoping it will be is far from certain"

Colin Graves and Tom Harrison, chairman and chief executive of the ECB, cite recent research that shows only 2% of children between the ages of 7 and 15 rate cricket as their favourite sport, that of the 9.4 million people in the country who identify themselves as cricket followers, less than a million actually attend any games, and that participation in cricket has been falling by 10% over the last three years. As well as a new participation strategy, they are pushing for a high-profile T20 tournament from 2020 that they hope will match the success of the IPL and the BBL. The injection of broadcasting cash could be huge - between an estimated £40 and £50 million a year.

It will also be the biggest change in county cricket for a generation. The tournament will see a move away from the traditional 18 first-class counties and introduce eight brand new teams for a competition played in a 38-day window at the height of summer. There will still be a T20 tournament involving all 18 counties, played earlier in the season.

The majority of the counties have voted in favour of the change, whether attracted by the promise of extra income or because they genuinely view it as being in the best interests of the game. Others believe the new competition is the thin end of the wedge that will marginalise the counties. With the weight of the ECB marketing budget behind the new tournament, will the existing county tournaments be rendered obsolete?

Chris Grant, chairman of Derbyshire - one of the smaller counties - said last year that far from marginalisation, the new competition "is the best way of securing Derbyshire's long-term first-class future". Richard Thompson, chairman of Surrey - one of the most vocal opponents of the reforms - believes that instead of creating new teams, it would have been better to turn the current T20 competition into a two-division tournament, with a Premier League that the television broadcasters could focus on.

The ECB's stated aim for the new tournament is to complement county cricket, to help sustain it, not replace it. They have, for now, committed to maintaining the same number of Championship matches.

Part of the massive success of the BBL is that it is shown on free-to-air television during school summer holidays and attracts an average audience of around a million. The ECB's new tournament cannot be on free-to-air if one of the main considerations is an injection of broadcasting revenue: free-to-air broadcasters simply do not have the same resources as the big boys, Sky and BT. Whoever wins the bid, though, will almost certainly need to commit to a certain percentage of matches being shown free-to-air, and there will be a new drive towards showing at least clips via digital outlets such as Twitter and YouTube.

"County cricket is at something of a crossroads. Whether the proposed T20 tournament is the silver bullet the ECB is hoping it will be is far from certain"

County cricketers themselves are broadly in favour of the new tournament. Understandably, they look at the money and the huge crowds that the BBL and the IPL attract and want to be part of something similar in England. However, Daryl Mitchell, the newly elected chairman of the Professional Cricketers' Association, has warned about the effects on other aspects of county cricket - particularly the one-day tournament that the ECB proposes will be played in the same window as the new T20 competition. Only about a quarter of all county cricketers, around 100, are likely to be picked in the draft for the new competition. The PCA wants to ensure that the money generated from the new tournament trickles down to all county cricketers - not just those playing it.

County cricket - indeed all of cricket - is at something of a crossroads. Whether the proposed T20 tournament is the silver bullet the ECB is hoping it will be is far from certain.

For now county cricket keeps the bailiffs from the door, continues to produce players for Team England, and provides entertaining, quality cricket. It is doing its job.