Since the halcyon days of the 1990’s, when international cricket still had a novelty value, cricket crowds in South Africa have slowly but steadily diminished over the last twenty years.
The 2018/19 season has seen this trend continue at an alarming rate. The inaugural Mzansi Super League couldn’t attract a single sell-out stadium. The Test crowds were poor for the Pakistan series and quite frankly pathetic for the recently concluded Sri Lanka series. According to reports, none of the twelve Momentum One-Day Cup matches have thus far attracted a crowd of more than 1,000.
The advent of T20 cricket has of course not helped the cricket administrators in trying to sell tickets for Test and one-day cricket. Faced with a decision over where to spend their hard-earned money, fans have over the past decade clearly preferred the shortest format. However, the big crowd-pullers overseas, like the Indian Premier League, the Big Bash in Australia and the Bangladesh Premier League, have all seen declining spectator numbers in recent years.
This trend is also manifesting itself in other international sports. Up to about four years ago, ticket sales were still the biggest revenue stream for football’s mega-clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool. This is no longer the case and probably will never be so again.
Even the Americans are no longer filling their massive stadiums to the brim. Last year the California-based Golden State Warriors, the defending NBA champions, couldn’t sell all the tickets for their two home final games against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Earlier this month the NFL’s 53rd Super Bowl final in New Orleans between the LA Rams and New England Patriots for the first time ever didn’t have a sell-out stadium.
There used to be this big argument that the television viewer doesn’t want to watch a game that is played in an empty stadium because it diminishes his viewing experience. This argument no longer holds true (if it ever did). Revenues from television rights have dramatically increased in all sports over the last five years. Spectator numbers clearly don’t bother television viewers.
In the current environment, it is hard to see how Test and one-day cricket will ever again draw crowds in big numbers. Perhaps the time has arrived to make a distinction between T20 cricket on the one hand, and Test and one-day cricket on the other.
Accept that the latter formats do not have the crowd appeal of T20 cricket and focus on making them formats geared towards the television viewer. (One can maybe make exceptions for the Cricket World Cup every four years and the Ashes series.) All efforts should then be focused on making T20 cricket a memorable in-stadium experience, something that can compete with other forms of modern-day entertainment. After all, it only needs a concentrated effort of little more than three hours – about the same time as a movie night or dinner out with friends.