Will ‘The Hundred’ Be An Attractive Proposition For Sponsors

‘Embarrassing and shambolic… a total mess’.

No, not the England Cricket team’s performance against Pakistan in the First Test at Lord’s last month, but former skipper Michael Vaughan’s verdict on the England and Wales Cricket Board’s proposal for a new eight-team city tournament, dubbed ‘The Hundred’. It is fair to say that the announcement of a new 100-ball tournament – designed to appeal to a younger audience and attract new fans to the game – has not been an unqualified success.

Critics aplenty have been queuing up to lambast the move as a marketing gimmick, insufficiently distinct from Tewnty20 at just 20 balls fewer per innings, and a format too far for a sport already struggling to cope with T20, 50-over and Test cricket.

It certainly isn’t the ideal starting point for drumming up sponsor interest. But in that respect cricket has been on a sticky wicket for some time now. The ECB struggled to find a sponsor for Test Cricket, after Investec pulled out of their 10-year, £40m sponsorship deal three years early. Two pre-existing ECB sponsors – NatWest and Specsavers – have filled the void. That doesn’t exactly suggest brands are queuing up at the Grace Gates to be associated with cricket.

England’s abject performances on the pitch haven’t helped matters. Nor has the steady stream of negative headlines surrounding the sport over the last year – be it Ben Stokes charged with affray, Australia admitting ball-tampering, or the recent – strongly denied – allegations of English spot-fixing.

Against that backdrop, and the ECB’s very own chairman opining that ‘the younger generation, whether you like it or not, are just not attracted to cricket’, one might assume that ‘The Hundred’ will struggle to garner sponsor interest. But you would be wrong.

There are a few hurdles to overcome before ‘The Hundred’ is a fully-fledged proposition – consulting the players and PCA, finalising the format, gaining MMC and ICC approval – but many brands will already be eying up the opportunity. The tournament is a fresh, new opportunity, unencumbered by any previous sponsor baggage or legacy to overcome, which always plays well with prospective brands. In its previous incarnation as another T20 competition, it would have sat alongside another domestic T20 competition – the NatWest T20 Blast. Now it has differentiation, innovation, and a USP. For marketers it will be less about associating with a new format, and more about an original brand proposition.

That proposition includes both male and female competitions, and will benefit from the ever-increasing brand interest in women’s sport. It will be interesting to see whether the ECB unbundle the male and female strands for separate sponsors, although that could create marketing and logistical complexity, especially given the proposed double-headers. Perhaps a brand will make a portfolio play, much like Isuzu/Subaru with the Wales Rugby team, who have Isuzu on their home shirt, and Subaru on their away shirt.

Aside from the tournament instrinsics, brands will climb aboard if there is certainty about fan interest, and reaching the valuable family and youth audience that the ECB is purporting to target. Which comes down to the marketing, and broadcast platform. This is where the ECB has some trump cards. They recently signed a monster broadcast deal with the BBC and Sky – reportedly £1.1bn over five years – that includes this new tournament.

Creating a format that starts at either 2.30pm or 6.30pm and lasts only three hours was not just so that families attending could get home for kids’ tea or bedtime. Fitting broadcaster slots was arguably a far more significant consideration. The received wisdom is that cricket interest and participation fell off a cliff the minute cricket moved from Channel 4 and the heady days of our 2005 Ashes win, to hide behind Rupert Murdoch’s paywall on Sky. If you show it on terrestrial TV, they will come. Helpfully, the BBC will show 10 of the 36 games live on terrestrial TV, giving cricket – and its sponsors – much needed reach into bedrooms and living rooms nationwide.

The marketing muscle of Sky and the BBC is in the bag, and will help create the requisite buzz and anticipation. But the ECB have their own marketing chops. The Women’s World Cup in 2017 was a case study in engaging a new audience with the right marketing, and an accessible, family-friendly matchday experience. And ECB execs have made many a trip to the Big Bash in Australia, where there’s a ready-made blueprint on how to engage a family audience in a new competition.

In terms of the cricketing calendar, the build-up to new tournament couldn’t be much better, with a Cricket World Cup on home soil in 2019, marketing to the very same Big Eventer family audience that ‘The Hundred’ will be trying to capture. There should be a pretty handy (GDPR compliant) database from that marketing exercise, and some new cricket fan appetites to feed. Throw in a home Ashes Series in 2019 as well, and it is a pretty good time for those ECB execs to be out selling their wares.

Those sales presentations could well include images of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya and the like. India’s cricket authority, the BCCI, which bans its players from overseas T20 tournaments to protect the primacy of the Indian Premier League, are considering making an exception for the Hundred because it is played over 100 balls, not 120. The inclusion of those superstars and their IPL stardust is a sure-fire way to fuel fan, and sponsor, excitement.

Ultimately, a lot comes down to the price tag at the end of those sales presentations. The ECB’s revenue expectations should be mitigated by the coffers swelling from the £1.1bn broadcast deal. Attracting brands who will help market the tournament and engage the right audience - straight from that Big Bash playbook – should be prioritised over a fat cheque.

So, will there be a ton of brands clamouring to be associated with the new short format tournament? Assuming the ECB play the long game, one hundred percent.