After a winter of negative headlines off the pitch and indifferent performances on it, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has vowed to embrace Twitter, Facebook and other modern marketing tricks as part of a drive to expand the appeal of the sport.
As the new county season starts today, the ECB has promised to take advantage of a summer where there are no major international soccer tournaments to reach a wider audience. There is more at stake than simply boosting attendances. The ECB executives, criticised over links with disgraced billionaire Sir Allen Stanford, are hopeful that a successful summer will redeem their reputations.
This summer will see the Ashes return to England for the first time since the triumphant summer of 2005 and the arrival of the West Indies for a short tour.
In between, the ECB hopes the ICC World Twenty20 tournament in June will build on the popularity of this format.
“This is the biggest summer of cricket ever to take place on these shores ... There’s no World Cup, there’s no European Championships, there’s no Olympics,” said ECB head of marketing, Will Collinson.
The ECB has launched official Twitter, Facebook and YouTube channels in an effort to promote the game beyond its normal fanbase. Twelfth Man, a “fan community,” will act as a focal point for fixtures, ticket information and debate. Pete Ackerley, head of development at the ECB, said the sport had learned the lessons of the summer of 2005, when England’s Ashes triumph gave the sport a huge boost in popularity before there was a structure in place to fully exploit it.
There are growing fears that the introduction of competitions like the Indian Premier League and the crowded international calendar will continue to overshadow domestic competitions. But the ECB insists the high profile of the international game this summer can encourage youngsters to take up the sport and boost attendances at county games.
The stakes are high for ECB chairman Giles Clarke and chief executive David Collier, who were heavily criticized for their alliance with Stanford.
Not only must they plot a course that maintains a balance between money-spinning international cricket and visibility for the county game, but they must prove their decision to hand exclusive live TV rights to Sky in a £300 million (US$448 million) deal was the right one. This summer will be the first time a domestic Ashes series has not been screened live on terrestrial television.
The ECB will point to statistics showing participation in the sport is up 24 percent in the past year as evidence that its strategy of investing the Sky millions in grassroots cricket is working.
But figures from Mintel published last month showed that interest in cricket among the general public was down by 5.8 percent during the same year. Those who criticized the lack of live coverage on free-to-air television have argued the sport will gradually lose its profile as a result.