Easy England victories are not always good for cricket – here’s why

England captain Alistair Cook happy to finish early and put his feet up. Richard Sellers / PA Wire/Press Association Images

As the touring Sri Lankan cricket team arrives in London for the final test of their three-match series, there won’t be too many people willing to part with their money for a ticket for the fifth and final day – in fact, given the dominance of the England XI, it’s a brave fan who is going to shell out up to £100 in advance for a ticket to a fourth day that may well not happen.

The first test at Headingley in Leeds lasted less than three days while the second test in Durham stretched to four days thanks to a second-innings fightback by the Sri Lankan batsmen.

England home test matches 2015-2016. Cricinfo, Author provided

This seems to be a recent trend: the last seven tests played in England have all finished inside five days. There could be a number of reasons for this – among them the proliferation of limited overs cricket which encourages players to be more aggressive and leaves less time for them to adjust to the longer form of the game. But what isn’t in doubt is the financial impact on those concerned with organising the matches.

According to the English Cricket Board (ECB), more than 560,000 spectators watched England play in home tests in 2015. Multiplying the capacity of the grounds which hosted test matches in 2015 by the number of days play in each of those matches gives a total possible number of seats of 566,479, which translates to 98.9% of test match tickets being sold. So demand for these marquee events remains strong.

Counties with big enough stadiums bid for the rights to host England internationals – and the fees paid to the ECB represent the main costs of hosting the match. It’s hard to get hold of detailed financial information, but Yorkshire County Cricket Club included costs of £1,300,521 in its annual accounts relating to the six days of international cricket it hosted in 2015 (one five-day test and one limited overs game). This was associated with revenues of £2,440,612 – this included tickets and hospitality.

If we take a rough approximation from Yorkshire’s figures and say that five-sixths of the revenue and costs related to the New Zealand test the county hosted, then – over five days – this netted a profit of around £950,000. But cut that back by a day or two and the revenue decreases by 20% per day (costs stay constant as the staging fee is not based on length of the match) then the loss of two days play would have reduced profit to around £136,500 – or a return on investment of around 13%.

It may well have been reasonable then to see some of the higher-ups at Yorkshire looking glum as England romped to victory on day three of the first test of the summer. This is especially true as test match venues might now weigh the opportunity cost of being able to host other potential money spinners such as rock concerts – for which ticket prices often exceed those paid by cricket fans.

When test matches end early it is likely to have a significant financial impact on the hosting counties and, in the future, more risk-averse clubs may choose to focus on limited-over games – not as prestigious in cricketing terms, but the revenue stream and costs are more easily matched. There are few other sports which match the conundrum that up to 40% of revenue for a marquee event is lost due to the dominance of one of the competitors.

Big-money broadcasting

Much of the ECB’s £174m annual revenue comes from its lucrative partnership with Sky TV, for whom the rights to England test matches are highly valuable in a summer of sport in which it is effectively shut out of Wimbledon, Euro 2016 and the Olympics. Sky’s four-year deal with the ECB is reported to be worth US$280m over four years and the broadcaster is unlikely to be happy to lose seven days of premium advertising revenue – as it did last year because of test matches finishing early.

Sky would not be the first broadcaster to baulk at the phenomenon of shorter test matches – the Hindustan Times reported last year that premature finishes in last year’s India-South Africa series had lost the Murdoch-owned Star TV money “left, right and centre”.

If this trend continues it will be interesting to see if this makes cricket broadcasters think again about the value of test matches. Maybe they’ll begin to demand penalty payments in the case of shortened matches – certainly it would be an issue which would be expected to impact future negotiations

The MCC faithful gathering at Lords for the 2015 Ashes test. John Walton/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Event studies abound from economic consultancies keen to talk up the value of events, the MCC commissioned one such study in 2007 regarding cricket matches at Lord’s which included the impact of money spent in and around the grounds – and it is clear that the impact of a big sporting event extends beyond the purchase of tickets by spectators. Pubs, restaurants, hotels and other businesses also stand to lose from shortened matches.

The end of five-day tests?

Several suggestions have been put forward for improving test match cricket: the ICC’s Dave Richardson recently raised the possibility of introducing test leagues, a proposition also made by former England captain Michael Vaughan, while ECB chairman Colin Graves has suggested making test matches four days long.

These suggestions are interesting, but might not solve the problem of how to make a test last five days and maximise the economic impact of these events. The 2015 Ashes series between England and Australia was competitive, but failed to produce a five-day match. And reducing matches to four days will inevitably mean that clubs and broadcasters rethink the amount they are willing to pay.

Cricket fans could no doubt suggest a wide variety of ways to improve things but in terms of maximising the economic value of a test match currently the question remains of how to make a test match last five days without ensuring dull cricket.