Dose of reality hits cricket's bottom line

Not keeping up with upkeep: St George's Park in Port Elizabeth. (Morne de Klerk/Getty)

Not keeping up with upkeep: St George's Park in Port Elizabeth. (Morne de Klerk/Getty)

Professional cricket in South Africa has finally agreed to drag its infrastructure out of an indulgent and unsustainable utopia in which every franchise and province maintains its own stadium.

The allocation of international fixtures for this summer is a portent of things to come. No fewer than 16 of the 19 matches scheduled against New Zealand, England and Australia between August and March will be staged at Newlands, the Wanderers, Kingsmead and Centurion Park.

Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom will each stage a single one-day international, but there is only an England warm-up match in Paarl and Pietermaritzburg and nothing in Kimberley, East London and Benoni.

Most of the smaller grounds have been struggling to change a lightbulb, never mind paint the stands, for years and the expectation of hosting internationals was, in practical and monetary terms, absurd. With insufficient content, the bigger grounds also faced challenges to retain their world-class status.

But Cricket South Africa (CSA) board elections were won and lost on the promises made to smaller unions in past eras, so the fixtures were duly handed out despite everybody – the host union, CSA and its affiliates – all making less money than if they had been played at the main venues.

The same equation applies today, but common sense has prevailed: “Every franchise and provincial union will gain between 23% and 35% more revenue if the stadiums with the highest capacities and [most] lucrative naming right deals are the hosts,” CSA chief financial officer Naasei Appiah told the Mail?&?Guardian.

Best asset
This is not to say that emotion has been completely disregarded: “I have heard many appeals for international matches in the outlying regions, particularly East London and Kimberley,” admits CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat.
“But international matches are our best asset and have never been maximised – but the smaller centres will not be cast adrift and forgotten about.

“We will stage events like the Africa Cup T20 and international A-team matches. This was a decision taken by the board and members’ council after a restructuring committee comprising [provincial] chief executives like Omar Henry, Jacques Faul and Jesse Chellan had worked on the new operating model. So while there was some emotion involved, in the end it was the sound logic that prevailed,” Lorgat said.

The country’s cricket resources have been in perpetual survival mode for over a decade. Five of the six professional franchises do well just to break even each year and the same applies to nine of the 12 provinces. So what? you may ask. So they make money to exist rather than exist to make money. What’s wrong with that?

The problem, according to Lorgat, will come soon if resources are not redeployed – and it will affect the very top of the pyramid, the jewel in the crown: the Proteas.

“The way the international game is structured at the moment, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, for example, will be paid six times as much International Cricket Council revenue as CSA. Add to that at least 15 times as much as CSA [gets from] their own domestic rights revenue and you are looking at a money resource difference of over 20 to one. That will eventually reflect on the field of play. We need to deploy our finances smartly and invest in the development of players. In other words, we need to do more with less to remain internationally competitive,” Lorgat says.

Knock them down?
Traditional revenue streams need to be rethought by grounds such as East London’s Buffalo Park and Kimberley’s Diamond Oval, steeped in history as they are. If corporate suites cannot be sold because of the lack of a high-profile fixture list, then get rid of them. Instead of battling to maintain and sell them, why not knock them down and build grass banks?

Festival grounds are low maintenance for much of the year, but can still offer a suitable ambience for appropriate fixtures with the use of marquees and family areas. Another area in which the country trails Australia and New Zealand, in particular, is diversification – using cricket venues for alternative sports and events.

New Zealand has just two cricket-specific venues, the iconic Basin Reserve in Wellington and Hamilton’s grass-banked Seddon Park. Every major cricket venue in Australia now doubles as an Aussie Rules stadium except for Perth’s Waca ground. In fact, cricket is heavily subsidised by the Australian Football League at the MCG, SCG, Adelaide Oval and Brisbane’s Gabba.

It won’t be long before this harsh, brave new world extends to the players as well as their stages. Just as some fans may have to travel many hundreds of kilometres to watch the Proteas play, aspirant cricketers will have to relocate to fulfil their dream of becoming one.

St George’s Park staged South Africa’s first-ever Test match in 1889 but it has been unable to upgrade its floodlights to international standard for two decades. The estimated bill for that is R40?million. CSA has said it would rather spend that amount of money on finding and developing a new generation of players. Sad, undoubtedly. But sensible, too.

If and when the annexure of the vast majority of world cricket’s revenue by the “big three” – India, Australia and England – is reversed or at least renegotiated, perhaps a budget can be found for the preservation of nostalgia.

But for now, South Africa has four category A stadiums, four category B and four C-grade venues, and they will be hosting fixtures accordingly. And if the belt-tightening hurts, they will have to wear a tracksuit and come up with a plan. Rugby has a similar dilemma but attracts just enough spectators to get by. Football, on the other hand, has more venues than it can ever sustain thanks to the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

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