Kevin Mitchell’s article in The Observer (http://preview.tinyurl.com/nnf94l) on Sunday paints a familiar picture of crickets county championship. The picture tag screams ‘remaining on empty. A rare spectator behind banks of unneeded seating’, the text talks of the championship existing in a kind of nostalgic limbo, the ‘near forgotten bedrock of the game’.
I’ve been to three county cricket matches this year – at Guildford, Headingley and Scarborough. Each time there was healthy crowds (see video below and entry for Aug 19). But I’ve also ‘virtually’ been at many, many more games this year.
Web 2.0 technologies has revolutionised the way I follow county cricket. At some clubs I can watch daily highlights (Sussex and Surrey for example), I can listen to commentary through BBC online, I can keep up to date with cricinfo and I can have my say through various message boards (eg http://whiteroseforum.co.uk/).
The more web 2.0 throws at me – the more engaged I get and the more I use. This year for the first time since my youth I took out membership of the county club I follow (Yorkshire) in no small part due to the fact that from a distant county I can still feel thoroughly engaged and part of something.
So in addition to the ‘rare spectator’ that the article refers to – you might also count the thousands (?) listening, watching and commenting online from all around the world. It’s a very different experience to being there – but its also unique and communal. The message board footprint leaves a unique, sometimes painful accounts of the game moment by moment (for an example just check out the Yorkshire and Sussex message boards during their recent fixture).
Only these people don’t pay the £15-20 admission fee. Which poses a key question – how can you monitise this engagement – or indeed should you?
James Murdoch’s attack on the BBC recently in his MacTaggert lecture is actually quite pertinant here. One he argues ‘we can’t sustain free’ – and all this coverage costs money in real terms. Its interesting to compare Surrey TV with Yorkshire CCC TV here. Surrey TV is effectively edited by the BBC commentator and sports journalist Mark Church using the footage recorded by the club analyist. It succeeds because a) its utilising what Surrey and BBC London were already doing but using it in a different way, b) Church is a professional journalist paid to be there by the BBC and c) it relies on the passion, energy and commitment of the journalist being prepared to do more for (presumably) same money. Yorkshire CCC TV is run by the club itself – and their equally enthusiastic and digitally savy (see the online version of Yorkshire Cricket Monthly for example) marketing manager James Buttler. So far so good. But James has a massive job marketing the club and everything else – and as yet Yorkshire CCC TV is not a priority. So the results are patchy and infrequent – and all the material is specially recorded (so not used for other purposes – Church’s post game interviews are frequently used by BBC London). Likewise with local media in steep decline and the BBC under continued pressure (Ben Bradshaw the culture secretary calling for a ‘smaller BBC’) the regular presence of at game journalists to carry out commentary et al might come under threat. In otherwords without enthusiastic individuals like Church and Dave Callaghan in Yorkshire, the commitment of the BBC or county clubs prioritising their online ‘adventuring’ – the current utopia might not last.
So if we assume these online audiences are valuable and worth nuturing how do you make it sustainable, even dare I say it, pay. Murdoch argued that commercial partners can’t keep up with the BEEB. Talking in cricket terms the most valuable (and therefore sell able thing) is arguably the online commentary. This is delivered by the BEEB so will – as long as it runs – always be free. As Sussex TV found out when they originally put their TV channel behind a pay wall – users simply said oh we’re happy enough with our free commentary and message board (although I suspect a micro payment system would have worked – I’d have happily paid a small per watch fee to see Yorks v Sussex but would baulk at a monthly fee).
So where to go? It actually strikes me the value of this online community is the levels of engagement of that fan base. Maverick, opinionated certainly – but also engaged, enthusiastic, committed and in the main well organised. In the not so distant future I could see those communities mobilising to fill the gaps.
In this age of the citizen journalist (and with equipment and technology costs dropping) its not hard to imagine members of online communities at the game recording their own highlight packages and providing text based commentary – via twitter, message boards and other means . Text based commentary is already happening a little on message boards from people on the ground with web enabled phones (phones which tend to have died by the final session!). Its also not hard to see those same online communities raising funds by setting up a two tier membership (free and fee paying) with the ‘enhanced membership’ paying for a young player of the year award, sponsoring a match ball or even hiring a corporate box for a members do or get together.
The question for the clubs themselves is how much they might engage with these (or other) initiatives – or to put it another way how out of the way they go to encourage and enable them. Might a club provide a fan media suite? Provide storage (or even provide itself) the equipment required? Allow access to players and coaching staff for post match interviews? Even simple things like providing a wireless enabled area, power sockets, fan press accreditation and permission for a fixed camera might go along way.
The benefit, surely, to them is the potential ‘eye balls’ (Yorkshire CCC recently celebrated there busiest ever web year – and that with a far from perfect site). More eye balls becomes more attractive to sponsors, advertisers and even greater opportunities to get messages out to a dedicated following. Ironically – unpolished, journalistically naieve content from knowledgable, passionate fans (and a different voice each day) might be very addictive. You might even see a situation where – in a partnership agreement – fan created content was handed over to the club to host with the club having the ability to place adverts around the content and even potentially a micro payment model (free to enhanced members of the message board of course!).
Its certainly too simplistic to say the more content = the more opportunities to engage with the club = more loyalty and interest = potential memberships and attendances. But there must be others like me…
Not really an example as my simple flip camera can only really catch atmosphere at games – but heres a sample of a video from Yorkshire v Warwickshire at Scarborough (and at the very least proof that spectators aren’t necessarily all that rare – http://blip.tv/file/2636277)