The economics and politics of a tiered Test league
Russell Degnan

Talk about the problems - such that they are - with test cricket, and it isn't long until a two-tier championship is mooted. Michael Vaughan is the latest to propose it, but the ICC investigated as long as a decade ago. A few lessons on why it failed to progress then and will do so again seem to be in order.

Politics 101

The MCC world cricket committee has its problems, but it did at least get this right:

"In discussing the marketing of Test cricket, [David White, CEO of New Zealand Cricket] added that a two-tier Test match championship - an idea involving promotion and relegation which has been raised in some parts - would be catastrophic for the long-form of the game in the nations outside the top four in the world."

There are 13 members of the ICC Executive: 10 full members, and 3 associate representatives. To pass, a vote needs a majority of the executive (7 votes), and 2/3 of the full members (7 votes) to be in favour. The associate votes are therefore irrelevant. The four teams excluded by a 6-team division will not be. An eight team first division might get closer, but even then, two teams are vulnerable to relegation. It is a big risk that more than half the full members won't take.

Finance 101

Over a 4-year period New Zealand generated approximately $130 million USD in revenue. Of that, approximately $35 million comes from the ICC. Around $25 million comes from Indian TV companies, primarily paying to see Indian cricketers; and around $10 million from TV deals to other nations (primarily England). In addition, their primary sponsors come about because they are a global team playing in front of a global - but mostly Indian - audience.

There is no point discussing cricket's structures unless you talk about finance or more specifically, ownership of the tv rights, and how much those rights are worth. Because of the context of the Future Tours Programme and ICC dividends, all full members can negotiate the sale of home matches for between $25 and $70 million over a four-year cycle. Exclude India, England and Australia from that cycle and the value of those matches goes down. If only test matches are excluded the hit might not be catastrophic, but it will hurt, even before they have to sell second-tier matches to their home crowds.

Ethics 101

There is a fundamental unfairness to the calls for tiers. Here is Athar Ali Khan in 2005:

"The annoying thing is that this idea is only ever spoken of when Bangladesh plays poor cricket. If we look back two, three or four years down the line, it was England who were at the foot of the table, but there was no talk of a two-tier system then. I simply don't understand the inconsistency."

Bangladesh ought to have improved more than they have, and Zimbabwe have their own problems. But even Sri Lanka copped the treatment after struggling in Australia this year - regardless that they remain in the top-6. There are people whose views on this are consistent, who'd readily accept India, England or Australia in the lower division, and the consequences.

But they are few on the ground. In the main, people suggest formats that prevent their side having to play low profile fixtures. And in the main, cricket writers emerge from England, India and Australia. Cricket's financial disparity is also reflected in its media disparity and the membership of its high profile committees, despite their laughable claim to diversity.

Ideas to improve the context of test cricket are welcome and needed. Ideas that only help the top-8, top-6 or top-4 are bad for the game, because they will stymie growth and reinforce an inequality that is already test cricket's biggest weakness.

Mathematics 101

There is a tendency in making plans to over-estimate how much cricket it is possible to play in a season or several, particularly given the slow encroachment of T20 leagues. The season of most nations is bounded by the Champions League in September and the IPL in April. Some matches can be scheduled outside that in several nations - Sri Lanka, Australia, South Africa, but not necessarily profitably.

In general, where five of the six sides play in the southern hemispheric summer, the sides will need to play five home series and four away. Assuming a three-test series takes five weeks - a warm-up and three tests over four weekend - that is 45 weeks of test cricket. Squeezing that into two seasons is extremely unlikely - there is a reason Australia has not expanded their home season beyond 5 or 6 tests per summer.

Even if a way was found to schedule them out of season it would almost certainly sound the death knell for the five test series. Some may argue that it is worth it in the interests of rational and fair planning and context. I can't say I see the appeal.

Alternatives are possible. A 7-team tier can almost certainly be accommodated over three years; an 8-team or 9-team division over 4. But that works strongly against having each series carry some context. Football seasons drag out towards the end for mid-table teams. But they still only last 6-9 months.

Conversely, a 6-team competition can be conducted in a single year, if teams played in two groups of three, and time was found for a final home-away series in September-October. It depends what constraints are in place.

History 101

The prevailing opinion in cricket is that international cricket should be conducted as a league where every team plays every other. But it isn't clear why this is the case.

Cricket is, needless to say, mired in mid-19th century exhibition matches, conducted by touring XIs. But the next evolutionary step by professional sports in the late 19th century was the cup competition (FA Cup 1871-72), usually conducted as a challenge competition (as probably only the Americas Cup remains) whereby the previous winner plays off against the winner of the cup competition. This invention gave teams the context for play, and has endured in various forms, but particularly international play ever since.

Professional matches of the early 1870s were organised haphazardly, with a preference for playing the "big" clubs who'd generate a profit. Hence, in the 1875 National Association, Boston played almost seven times as many games as Keokuk. The invention of a league, played on regular and (almost) even schedules came about to protect the financial interests of clubs who couldn't rely on exhibition matches or a decent cup run to generate consistent revenue.

The preference for leagues in cricket stems from the same source: a desire to play certain teams and generate revenue. Except that sports revenue is no longer ticket-driven, and league play, while desirable in a competition between teams unhindered by geography, and therefore playing base, is not necessarily the best option for international teams.

By and large, fans don't really want to see weak teams play strong teams, just to preserve the financial integrity of the weak. A competition structure that allows weak and strong to segment themselves into groups, and then plays most matches amongst the best players is much more desirable. A fact that can be seen by the ever-growing length and importance of play-offs, relative to leagues in professional sports.

It is important cricket moves out of the mid-19th century. But the late 20th century is a better option than the late 19th.

Finance 102

There are three methods by which the financial inequities of a second tier can be ameliorated.

  • As discussed by Michael Wagener, there can be cross-division games, whereby the second division hosts the first, albeit less regularly. The down-side is that it must be scheduled on a much longer schedule - 4 years or more - and it is at best a partial solution.
  • The richer nations can pay into a fund that is then distributed amongst members. This was mooted after the ICC study proposed various changes to the FTP to accomodate a league structure. Neither the BCCI nor the ECB would agree.
  • The ICC can assume control of the scheduling, ownership and running of the test championship from which they fund the various members involved. On a very small scale, this is the model the proposed 4-team 3-match test championship will take; assuming it is not post-poned again.

The third, ownership and control, is how the majority of sporting bodies work with respect to tv rights. The alternative - such as in MLB or La Liga - ends up with vast inequities, because the rich teams have no desire to give up revenue - and why would they? That doesn't matter that much in cricket, because the players cannot switch teams, but will if the players switch formats because test/international cricket cannot afford to pay for their services.

Politics 102

The big-three have no wish to engage in a test league either.

Obviously, the threat of relegation puts at risk their (and cricket's) most valuable properties: the Ashes, the Border-Gavaskar and the Patuadi Trophy. Nor should we discount the value of these series on the grounds of elitism. They are valuable because they are popular. Popular generates income. Context for other series won't necessarily make up the difference losing or diminishing them will cause - by making them 3-test series for example.

This is a problem if some form of monetary distribution is to take place. A test league that reduces the total value of the test cricket franchise makes it unlikely it will come from a surplus, and works against the aim to improve the lot of players eyeing better pay-days.

Nor ought we expect a system to stay in place if it works against the priorities of the teams involved. Were India relegated that financial hit will hit teams in the first division. Under those circumstances it is almost guaranteed that the 6-team division will become the 7-team division or the 8-team division. Or that "extra" series will be scheduled.

That's politics, but given that situation, the design of any new structure ought to reflect the need to preserve these series in their best form: 5 tests, semi-regular.

Economics 101

The premise of Vaughan's article is wrong anyway. T20 domestic cricket is not the same as league cricket attempting to out-bid county cricket for players - as was the case in the early 20th century. T20 domestic cricket is organised by individual ICC members. While it is certainly true that the organisation of these leagues is impinging on test cricket, that is because other ICC members are organising international matches in conflict to T20 domestic leagues, and vice versa.

The basic economic equation of sport: match interest is driven by the presence of star players; the matches with the most star players will over-shadow interest in matches without any. Domestic matches, where stars are spread between teams generally produce more income because they have more matches (more teams and more fixtures) and make more efficient use of fixed resources (grounds for example).

Domestic leagues therefore have a lot of money, but there is no market driven out-competing of T20 domestic leagues over test cricket. What there are administrators in numerous nations who refuse to sit down and devise periods when T20 domestic cricket can be played, and when test and international cricket can be played without conflict. With relatively few exceptions, this is the norm in football or rugby. It obviously doesn't suit the BBL or BPL to have some of their star power outbid by IPL teams, but IPL teams leave a lot of players on the bench.

The sad fact is, cricket is a cartel but is too disorganised to organise and market their games in a way that maximises their resources to serve customers; and therefore leaves enormous amounts of money on the table because of a deficiency of governance.

Politics 200

There is a really good reason I began my manifesto with an extensive discussion of what cricket should aim to achieve. Those goals are in conflict. A path through them that satisfies most parties - administrators, players, fans - while growing the game, adding context to test cricket, and preserving its unique history is very difficult. But it is also the only way that test cricket can move forward from its current scheduling malaise.

A tiered league system for test cricket is a terrible idea. Every person who sits down and works through the consequences agrees on this. It has benefits for the top-ranked test sides and the top-ranked associate sides. But in the former case they are teams that want for nothing, and in the latter, it is at best a marginal improvement, as they will be entering much the same type of competition they just left: the Intercontinental Cup.

It is also a lazy solution, grabbed upon because that is what popular domestic sports have, when those very sports are pushing for a tournament orientated approach that adds more immediate context, while using a distributed ownership model of television rights.

A tournament, played home and away, with a year of qualifying and a year of match play between the best sides - the others playing a secondary or tertiary tournament - would work considerably better than a league. It would allow the flexibility outside the tournament to schedule the marquee tours; the ICC to assume the ownership rights to the non-marquee tours at relatively little cost to the big-three; a balance between key match-up and opportunities for smaller nations; and add immediate context to a range of matches within a time-frame that the public can follow.

Nor is this a new model. The Davis Cup has operated a home or away style tournament for over a century; the FIFA World Cup operates an extensive home and away qualifying model that is far more inclusive (and mismatched) than cricket would ever dream. Although weather is a factor in cricket, limiting the ability to schedule a straight-knockout, both those events are vastly superior as cups than they would be as leagues. A cup format is the appropriate model for international sport and cricket needs to embrace it, instead of chasing rainbows elsewhere.

Cricket - Articles 3rd March, 2013 14:35:36   [#] 


The economics and politics of a tiered Test league
Fantastic point about how ideas that serve the top 8/6/4 nations will harm the growth of the game, I posted about Irish cricket in this context here:
Your conclusions are interesting, I hadn't considered changing the structure of test scheduling away from the tours model, but some sort of Davis Cup style tournament would be great to see. Certainly I would be more interested in that than in endless ICC limited overs tournaments. Perhaps there will be space freed up if there is no 50 over WC after 2015, which is looking possible. Without a WC in the format international teams will stop playing it, leaving plenty of room for more interesting cricket.
awbraae  4th March, 2013 05:48:47