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Bullet the blue sky
Somnolent members, Super memories and Rovers return
Friends tell me the whooshing sound I heard on Monday was the bullet I dodged in failing to be selected as chair of Middlesex Cricket back in the Spring. Maybe. The club has just been sanctioned by the ECB for being “financially mismanaged over a number of years”, the result of “a lack of effective governance and oversight.” A football chairman once lauded his CEO to me as someone who was prepared to run into the bullets of a crisis whenever they were flying. Middlesex needs just such an attitude right now.
The punishment meted out by the ECB is far lighter than the governing body’s rhetoric. A financial tickle accompanied by a resounding slap. If Middlesex straightens out its governance and can demonstrate a sustainable, profitable model then it will avoid a threatened set of points deductions and limit its fine to just £50,000. Lucky for them cricket doesn’t have the independent regulator many have called for after the sport’s racism scandal that first emerged in Yorkshire.
In truth, the club is in a parlous state. Any greater financial penalty would likely push it over the edge. Don’t underestimate either the challenge of constructing a credible budget. Middlesex are tenants at Lord’s and don’t have access to the ancillary opportunities available to other counties who own and are able to monetise their grounds through concerts, conferences and wedding parties. The club’s primary revenue source is the ECB itself. And as to points deductions, well they simply distort competition and punish fans.
In response to the ECB’s sanctions, Middlesex has professed itself “extremely disappointed”, blaming the situation on the “previous administration.” At the heart of the matter were “serious irregularities with the club’s pension scheme.”
The Telegraph, however, has also reported that ECB funds were spent on the men’s first team that were intended for grassroots cricket. Note too that the ECB’s statement does not use references to previous leadership equivalent to those contained in Middlesex’s response.
At interview for the chair role I was asked about my understanding of the pension issue and how I would straighten out the financial position. With hindsight I should have turned the tables on the interview panel and asked them to tell me just that. After all, a number of the current board were in post during that “previous administration.” Wouldn’t they ordinarily be considered to be part of it?
Last week I flagged the news that Yorkshire Cricket is considering a sale and leaseback of its Headingley ground. Now it is reported that the owners of the Rajasthan Royals IPL franchise are contemplating a bid for the entire club that would enable it to clear its debts. If the board could squeeze this past Yorkshire’s members it would become the fourth first class county to have a corporate rather than a membership ownership structure.
For traditionalists, corporatisation represents an unacceptable risk to the sanctity of the county game. However, this not only ignores the huge success - on and off the pitch - enjoyed by Hampshire under majority owner Rod Bransgrove over the past couple of decades, but the reality that county cricket is struggling regardless of ownership models. Without the riches generated by the England men’s cricket teams, most counties’ financial models are unsustainable.
It might seem harsh, but you could accuse the members of Middlesex of being asleep in the stands. With their annual membership comes not only a ticket at the gate but a vote at the county’s AGM. The board serves at the whim of the members and is answerable to them. A number do turn up each year to exercise their voting rights, but of course the vast majority will be largely oblivious to the electoral power that comes with what they naturally view as simply a cricket season ticket.
The debate within football about regulation, governance and ownership includes a body of supporters who favour cooperative models, and a far wider group lobbying for formalising greater fan engagement. They might reflect carefully on cricket’s current struggles and ask to what extent member owners are part of the problem rather than a source of protective strength at a time of existential threat.
If the ECB could construct robust vetting and oversight procedures - admittedly a big ask given failures in other sports - then it should consider actively encouraging outside equity investment into counties. It has the funds to put such a structure in place, but money alone wouldn’t guarantee success. Does the governing body have the smarts to make it work, or the humility to realise it would need to hire them in?
There are suggestions that a reworking of The Hundred might involve injections of third party capital into franchises, and that each county could have a team in a revamped competition. If true, then the floodgates will effectively open as its hard to conceive of these franchises being entirely ring-fenced. Best the ECB starts building its oversight capabilities pronto as the future health of the county game will be determined by its ability to separate the Bransgroves from the chancers.
Middlesex’s first team has had a poor season. Bottom of its table in the T20 Blast, two wins from seven completed matches in the One-Day Cup and at serious risk of relegation to Division Two of the Championship. As to the board’s own performance, well it has yet to appoint a new permanent chair almost a year after starting the recruitment process.
No more Mo
At a school reunion last weekend, people I’d not met for decades were keen to talk about Super Saturday and to ask me what I thought of Mo Farah. I’ve found for some time that there is no simple answer to that simple question.
On Sunday Mo bowed out of athletics aged 40, after a retirement that seems to have been going on for the past few years. The other Brit stars on that heady, golden day in 2012 have long since hung up their spikes. Jessica Ennis’ final heptathlon was in 2016. Greg Rutherford last jumped in 2018. They are three and four years younger than Mo respectively.
What I do know about Mo is that while his choice of coach gave me personally some considerable headaches, his exhilarating performances on the track gave us all some sensational, indelible sporting memories. I fervently hope he’s plotted a course for his next 40+ years that excites and fulfils him.
No escape from footy
The rugby spin doctors may not have enjoyed the reference to the dominant ball game, but this was my standout quote from the first weekend of RWC action:
“I know it’s hard from the outside. I support Bristol Rovers so I know how it feels when you’re not getting results.” Ellis Genge addresses England’s poor pre-tournament run of form after their opening fixture win against Argentina
Flick to kick
Hansi Flick is the first ever German national men’s team head coach to be sacked. He’s the 10th holder of the post since WW2. Gareth Southgate is the 19th in the line of English succession over the same period. You’d need to argue the meaning of ‘mutual consent’ to determine how many of his predecessors truly left of their own accord. Four World Cups plays one in the two nations’ tallies.
Euro 2024 in Germany is only nine months away today. How very English of the Germans.