County cricket in the internet age: followed but not watched

The phrase ‘county cricket is an anachronism’ is an anachronism. The domestic game may have seemed irrelevant and redundant in the Eighties and Nineties, but it has chanced across a niche for itself since then. Seemingly against the odds, it has a place in the modern world.

Short attention spans

Apparently no-one has time to do anything that takes longer than 30 seconds any more. That’s what they tell us. We’re supposed to oscillate between microwave and YouTube clip while simultaneously updating Facebook.

But it’s not like that. People may source information in a different way, but they can still cope with a long narrative. A story arc may comprise a greater number of smaller instalments than in the past, but it’s still that same sense of something unfolding which keeps us hooked.

The tale of the County Championship

The County Championship is a story that takes many months to tell. Do a head count in the grounds and you’d think no-one gave a toss about it, but you’d be looking in the wrong place. County cricket is something that is primarily followed, not watched.

Some people think that the long drawn-out nature of multi-day cricket is a flaw. Worryingly, many of these people are in positions of influence. They look at the success of football and other sports and try and learn from what they offer, not comprehending that this sentences the sport to being at best a pale imitation of something else. The modern world is rich with options. There’s no need for anyone to waste time on the second-best version of anything.

Cricket is the best example of a sport that can be followed without being watched. That is its unique selling point. You have to boast a unique selling point when you’re competing with every pastime imaginable thanks to the internet.

Who says we have to watch sport?

We’re pretty confident that everyone reading this has seen a cover drive. This means that a radio commentator or ball-by-ball reporter can say “X plays a cover drive” and we all know what’s happened. Similarly, we know that an innings is the sum of many different events. We don’t need to witness every single delivery to know how things are going. In fact, such detail often detracts from the bigger picture.

A cricket scorecard is a thing of functional beauty. You can read an entire story, plot twists and all, from what appears to be merely a list of names and numbers. It is not necessarily the specific events which are of interest, it is how they fit together to form a narrative.

Actively following cricket

This is how most of us follow cricket nowadays. We might watch passages of play in a Test match, but for the most part we start with the scorecards and seek out further information when something takes our interest. An unusual scorecard might lead us to a match report, which might lead us to try and learn more about a particular player, which might lead us to a YouTube clip.

There are many avenues to follow and while people still sometimes want to watch a particular match, that is a passive way of following cricket and most of us are now active followers.

A richer story

How can the County Championship compete with the higher profile story arcs of a Test series or the IPL? In short, it potentially offers a richer story.

This very much depends on how much time a person is willing to invest in following it, but the Championship features far more teams and therefore far more characters and complexity than a Test series, while the first-class format offers a wider variety of match situations than Twenty20 cricket.

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re the kind of person who is always searching for more information to fill your break times at work, the County Championship presents a near-bottomless pit to explore; a developing narrative thread for you to follow from April until September.

It can provide hundreds of hours of entertainment for a person over the course of a season without their ever once attending a match. This is hugely valuable, but it also gives rise to a problem which we’ll outline in the second part of this article about county cricket in the internet age – how can this interest be translated into much-needed income for the sport itself?

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8 Appeals

  1. Part of the enjoyment of watching sport is that the result matters. It doesn’t actually matter, of course, but it is usually quite easy to convince yourself that it matters. So when the Australians arrive this summer, the whole country will understand that a win for England is actually important. It’s only with this that any tension is possible.

    The main problem I see in County Cricket is that it has been allowed to drift for so many years, it is hard to convince yourself that the result genuinely matters to anyone, even the players. The last few seasons have had nicely dramatic endings, where it is clear that it matters to the two or three counties involved. But now, at the beginning of the season, the whole thing has an air of going through the motions about it. Hey ho lads, another county season, another year’s chore to get through so we can maybe impress someone enough to get an IPL offer or an international call-up. If we win, that’s great, but if we lose… well whatever, nobody really cares too much.

    When you watch the remake of Cape Fear and actively want the family to get murdered because you care so little about them, the film has gone wrong. There is no plot without some emotional investment in the outcome. If the marketing people should do anything, it’s not convince us all to go to watch, or pay to view, or whatever – it is just to make more people care, even a little bit, about the outcome. Everything else will follow.

    • King Cricket

      April 10, 2013 at 11:48 am

      It’s true that passionate interest can be exploited in a way in which curiosity and impartial absorption cannot – that does seem a fundamental problem. But we still feel there should be more to show for the current level of interest.

    • King Cricket

      April 10, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      And actually would everything else necessarily follow, or would we just have more people following the sport more closely without any discernible increase in revenue?

    • Maybe “will follow” was a bit strong. But “will be much more likely to follow” is right. We’re not talking about a magic idea that suddenly brings in a billion extra groats in revenue, just anything that increases the interest a bit. Increments are what’s needed (as your cycling chums are keen to point out). People might be desperate to know how their county is doing and still not spend a bean. But they are much more likely to buy a shirt or go to a match than if they couldn’t care less.

  2. Break times?

    Break times are used to get away from the computer, where we have been glued to Cricinfo for the last four hours.

    Come on you Bears.

  3. Beautifully put KC. This is why everyone reads your site and nobody reads mine.
    Although it is a shame to introduce filthy lucre (and forgive me if i have made this point before) but th problem with this model is how do the conties generate any income at all out of this following? Reading about,listening to watching and talking about cricket absorbs a colossal amout of my time and emotional resources, but how much money do I put into cricket? A share of my Sky subscription my fraction of the advertisers fee and a couple of days of test tickets per year. Maybe I’ll get to see a bit more county cricket live this season, but as you say, that is exceptional for most cricket followers. Apart from trickle down from the internationals, I’ll essentially get the entire county season (which yorkshire are already making terrific hash of) on the terms you describe, for free. Great for me, but is it good for cricket?

    • King Cricket

      April 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      It’s unclear from your comment whether you’ve read the second part of this article. Could you let us know so we can make the link more obvious if necessary?

    • I hadn’t read the second piece, although that may say more about my ability to miss the obvious than how obvious it was. I read the article at the top of the page and assumed that part 2 would follow in the future….. it seems the future is now. And my comment above was rather redundant. This is getting rather like my day job.

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