By Richard Edwards
21st March 2023
No-one involved in club cricket needs reminding just how tough the last few years have been for the recreational game in this country. The pandemic posed perhaps the greatest threat the sport has had to face. Then, just as clubs scrambled to their feet, the cost of living crisis came along and bowled them over again.
With the 2023 season upon us, the Club Cricket newsletter went in search of clubs who have found themselves in the eye of this financial storm - clubs who have suddenly found themselves attempting to manage soaring costs as inflation hit double-digits. Despite the government’s intervention, utility bill prices – which in many cases have doubled in just six months - have also placed enormous pressure on clubs that could be forgiven for feeling weary from the battles they’ve had to fight since 2020.
The club cricket community, though, is a hardy one. And as we found through our many discussions in recent weeks, there’s an up and at ‘em mentality, and a determination to see every challenge as an opportunity. Yes, there might be some clubs who are unable to ride out another storm – but there are plenty who are prepared to do just that, and, to their eternal credit, also offer help and advice to those who need it most.
“I think one of the key things we learnt through Covid and what was a very difficult period, was the need to communicate with other clubs,” says Gareth White, the chairman and former captain of Cockermouth Cricket Club, the former home of England skipper, Ben Stokes.
“I think that’s generally something that cricket clubs have got much better at – sharing best practice and ensuring that, when cricket clubs need help, they don’t feel like they’re on their own.”
In purely practical terms, the surge in inflation from just 0.4% in February 2021 to a 41-year high of 11.1% in October 2022, has created the kind of cost pressures that no cricket club has had to face in a generation.
Whether it’s equipment for the upkeep of grounds and the maintenance of pitches, or the cost of beer, crisps and soft drinks from the bar, the impact has been dramatic. There is, though, a determination to ensure that spiralling costs are managed in a way which doesn’t place an extra burden on players, club members or those who come to the cricket ground to socialise.
Totteridge Millhillians Cricket Club of the Hertfordshire Cricket League are very much a community club, and one which opens its doors to the local public as readily in winter as summer. Like others they have been left feeling the pinch. But they’re intent on maintaining a positive outlook.
“Our utility bills have gone up by around £1000 a month,” says Club Secretary, Wyn Bowen. “The knock-on effect is that is we’ve decided to retain the opening of bar between six and nine, or later if there was football on, but we’ve seen a decrease in footfall, whether that’s because of people tightening their belts, I’m not sure.
“We’re also seeing a 10 to 15% increase in wholesaler prices on bar goods and stock. Plus things such as seed and so forth have risen hugely too. Generally, it’s quite apparent that things have gone up. I think the accounts for October 2023 show us in a slight loss-making position. For us, it’s a case of looking at how we get more social members and how we run more events in the pavilion. Those are central because it’s not easy just sticking membership and match fees up.
“Cricketers, we find, tend to look at what other clubs are charging, particularly in the second, third or fourth teams. Players will look around and see if it’s much cheaper to play in another side.”
No matter the financial strains placed on clubs, there is a clear intention not to increase the financial burden of the paying public, or the players, going into the 2023 season. That’s not to say that clubs have their heads in the sand over the issue.
“We know that costs have gone up, everyone can see that – you only have to go into a supermarket to see the impact that inflation has had,” says White. “But we’ve always tried to ensure that we’re an affordable club for our senior and junior members in terms of our membership prices. We want to make cricket accessible to absolutely everyone. What we definitely don’t want, is for anyone to think that they can’t afford to play.”
Cockermouth’s bar prices remain considerably lower than pubs in the town, which is largely the case in cricket clubs up and down the country. The club also take great pride in the fact that they were the first bar to re-open after the 2020 lockdown, opening up their outfield as perhaps Cumbria’s largest beer garden.
White also believes that leagues are being more flexible in order to maximise economic opportunity.
“Post-Covid, there has been a real change in the way that people think, there’s a lot more flexibility,” says White. “Providing you can agree with the other club to move fixtures, then you can switch them to a Friday night to try and attract as many people to the club as possible.”
That’s just one example of the way that leagues are now working with their clubs. It’s a similar story down the M6 in Lancashire.
“I think clubs in our league have traditionally tried to keep costs for members as low as possible,” says Mike Bibby, the chairman of the Lancashire Cricket League. “Yes, money is tight for some at the moment but I think that, generally, those additional costs that clubs are incurring aren’t being reflected in the amounts that people are being asked to pay.
“A lot of our clubs will open during the week (in winter) when there’s a big football match on, they’ve all got big screens and it’s a great way of them encouraging people to use the club’s facilities. The costs have gone up dramatically but, at the moment at least, no clubs seem to be in financial trouble.”
The picture away from English cricket’s top leagues, however, is, as Bibby concedes, likely to be far more concerning.
“You have to be sympathetic to a lot of village clubs or clubs in rural areas – they must be struggling and there must be an obvious danger of some going out of business entirely,” he says.
“On a practical level, if these high prices continue, and if you’re paying increasing amounts on energy, then a lot of clubs will be looking at whether they can afford a professional, or recruit an overseas player.”
Every club in the Lancashire League has a professional for this season, but a fair number have decided against bringing in a player from outside the UK for 2023 and potentially beyond. Part of the reason for that could be related to the visa issues experienced last summer – with Home Office delays causing some to abandon their recruitment plans – but cost is undoubtedly the over-riding factor.
“At least if you’re paying a local or an English pro, you’re not paying travelling, accommodation for the season or flights here in the first place,” says Bibby.
Of course, further down the pyramid, these aren’t even considerations. But, regardless of a club’s standing or size, Simon Prodger, managing director at the National Cricket Conference, believes the most important factor is having visibility into the situation each individual club faces.
“Clubs need to be proactive,” he says. “Clubs need to identify what needs to be done. We’ve had a root and branch look at what we can do (at Watford Town Cricket Club) – were not financially stretched but if we have a whole season where our costs are out-stripping our returns then that will impact our figures. We’re very cheap when it comes to the cost of our beer, so we may need to play a bit of catch-up when it comes to increasing the cost on our pumps.
“We have a very good and active bar at the moment. For the sake of our members we would like to continue to offer that kind of cost difference (between the club and the pub) but every step of the way, our costs are increasing. We have to be prudent and, as a result of inflation, we should really be adding 10% onto our prices.”
On the field, there’s also a sense that uncertainty lurks around every corner going into the new season.
“We’ve already had some clubs tell us that they’re going to be unable to field the same number of teams that they did in 2022,” says Prodger. “Putting up prices and putting up match fees or subscriptions is going to do nothing to address that problem. It becomes a perfect storm. You try and balance the books and do what’s necessary – but by doing that you’re passing the costs down to your membership and if you’re membership can’t afford them you suddenly find that you go from three teams on a Saturday to two. Then you’re not generating the amount of income you would with three teams.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that things get tougher. Clubs need to get onto the front foot.”
Help is at hand
The pandemic saw the ECB almost take on the role of a central bank for the recreational game, providing loans and grants that helped clubs weather the most testing financial environment in the sport’s history. Now, almost three years on, Claire Gooch, head of facilities investment at the ECB, is keen to emphasise that help is still available for those clubs that need it.
“The investment management system launched in March 2020,” says Gooch. “It was meant to be for our county grants fund but we ended up pivoting and providing emergency loans. We assisted 1748 clubs with grants (during the pandemic). It really was a keeping on the lights grant scheme.
“County Grants then launched in September 2021. Grants are available of up to £10000 to create welcome environments and enhance facilities for playing, particularly for women, girls and disability cricket. We also have a strand on climate change which is available to any club. That can help cut energy bills, which is going to be a real risk to clubs, not just now but in the future. If we can help clubs to invest in energy saving technology – there are a range of options.”
There is also an interest free loan scheme which is available to clubs. All the details can be found on the link below.https://www.ecb.co.uk/be-involved/club-support/club-funding