When it comes to the County Championship, the stereotype has long existed of a product dying in the face of Twenty20 cricket, of empty grounds through dark and damp April, of a means to an end operating well behind the times. Quietly, however, a digital revolution is taking place, the results of which are challenging concerns over the format’s future and an apparently uninterested audience.
Ben Warren, a digital marketing and communications executive at Somerset County Cricket Club, is at its forefront. Together with Bristol-based sport tech company MyActionReplay, Somerset have redefined their digital strategy, culminating in a free streaming service – complete with BBC-provided commentary as well as pause and rewind functions – of every home game in the club’s County Championship season.
While the Taunton club is by no means unique in providing the service – the vast majority of the 18 county sides have taken advantage of the opportunity to live stream all non-televised fixtures – Somerset’s experience is fascinating, boasting spectacular numbers in a sporting format often demeaned as inherently unfashionable.
“We always knew that there would be interest,” Warren says of a journey whose objective has always been to better connect a fanbase with its sport. “It was more a case of finding avenues by which we could make it much easier to consume county cricket. When I started, even the quality of the cameras we had were the equivalent standard of a 1980s video recorder.
“I think what we have been able to fully realise is that people’s social habits have changed and people are not necessarily able to devote four days of their lives to coming down to Taunton to watch all 400 overs of a Championship match.
“Now though, people can watch one day on their phone, one day having it on in the office, and then potentially if they have their Saturday off then might choose to come down to the ground and watch a day.
“We don’t want people choosing not to come down because they’d rather sit it at home and watch it on their phone. I think the stream is new enough that it’s slightly more than a webcam but it’s not Sky Sports – you wouldn’t trade in the experience of being there for it.”
Somerset's streaming service is free of charge and has attracted incredible viewing figures.
The technology appears simple enough, with a camera situated at each end behind the bowler’s arm. Currently, there is no roving alternative to follow the ball or the fielders into the outfield. That, Warren explains, may come in time. So too, he hopes, might a scoreboard graphic that could appear on-screen at the end of each over.
Their absences make the stream’s partnership with BBC Radio Somerset all the more important. The visual coverage was synchronised with the audio commentary at the start of the season, providing fans with a more complete experience.
Warren explains: “The synchronisation is vital. We did a number of test runs before the season to ensure that it worked well. If it is a millisecond out, it can have disastrous effects. The commentary is so important. Having that audio gives the viewer the information that they can’t see on the screen.”
In the county’s first game of the season – an 83-run victory over Worcestershire, more than 15,000 hours of the free streamed coverage were consumed across the club’s various digitally accessible platforms, including PC, tablet, console and mobile devices. In a game which lasted just three days, the club received just short of two million social impressions, as well as a combined 450,000 views across the club’s live broadcast and in-play clips.
In a world of complex and lucrative media rights deals, the ability to broadcast live competitive action without any fee seems an almost alien concept. Even the use of real-time in-play highlight clips – the origin of the streaming venture – has provided county cricket fans with a level of engagement that previously simply did not exist. As Warren is quick to point out, however, much of the credit has to be shared between the ECB and Sky – the game’s principal rights holders in the United Kingdom.
“They have been very helpful,” he says. “When the last round of media rights were discussed, social media streaming didn’t really exist. In-play clips weren’t really a thing, so the fact that we have been able to get those permitted is a huge credit to the ECB and Sky as well.
“It probably really started in July 2016. We weren’t the first to stream but we probably were the first to really understand the potential of those in-play clips that we could download onto our website and social media.
“There was a game at Taunton in July 2016 against Pakistan in the first game of their tour. It was Mohammad Amir’s first game back in England after his ban and it coincided with us just starting to have these in-play clips.
“We had absolutely ridiculous numbers from all over the world – we were ending up on different television networks all around the world and getting millions of views. Albeit a large part of that audience was in Asia, we realised then how big these could be. As a result, we built a scorecard and then developed the commentary, before the stream was given the green light by the ECB in 2017.”
Since then, the numbers have grown exponentially. “They have been incredible this season,” Warren says. Although a more detailed review into the stream’s first full year will be kept back until the season’s conclusion, his statistics show that 92 per cent of views – both on the live stream and replay clips – have come from within the UK.
The club's live stream and in-play highlights received more than 450,000 views in Somerset's win over Worcestershire.
Without a single minute of live domestic cricket on free-to-air television as part of the current deal, the domestic success is of little surprise. The experiment – and that is still how Warren sees it – has not so much unearthed cricket fans as it has made the game accessible to its existing supporters.
“We get a lot of people watching from Devon and Cornwall,” Warren explains. “We have also found that a lot of the viewers are people that have moved away from Somerset to work in London or elsewhere and are still Somerset fans.
“They use this as a way of staying in touch. It means that they can remain connected to their club and that is a really powerful thing.”
Further afield than the UK, the club have added Pakistan batsman Azhar Ali to their ranks on a short-term deal, with Warren intrigued to see how his presence at Taunton impacts the Asian viewership. Similarly, the Western Storm, the women’s T20 Kia Super League team based at the ground, featured India star Smriti Mandhana. In one Storm game that was streamed at Taunton, the presence of both Mandhana and her Indian teammate Harmanpreet Kaur, who was playing for the Lancashire Thunder, caused a large spike in the figures.
Even beyond the game-changing live streaming service, Somerset’s digital profile has raised the bar, with a sharp focus on driving fan engagement and forging ever-closer ties between the club and its loyal supporters.
With no professional football club in the town, for those that want to watch elite sport in Taunton, the County Ground is the place to be. It is a geographical advantage that Warren is intent on utilising.
“A lot of Somerset fans who weren’t on Twitter now are because it is the easiest platform to connect with us,” he explains. Last Sunday, Somerset’s T20 Blast quarter-final against Nottinghamshire was thwarted by rain. From a fan engagement perspective, however, it showcased the success of Somerset’s digital media strategy in turning Twitter into the club’s informational hub.
“It was a really good example of the power of Twitter,” Warren recalls. “People were constantly asking us what the latest was. The reason they were asking us was that they knew that we would respond to them and they knew that this was the most instant platform from which they would get a response.
“I think long-gone are the days where people would be sat emailing or phoning the club. They still do that but a lot of people use the Twitter feed to look at what’s happening.
“We had record numbers of impressions on Sunday because we have an easily accessible profile that meant that people on their journeys to Taunton could keep up to date with us.”
The club’s website is similarly interactive, with Warren keen to stress its engagement-driven attributes, as well as the secondary benefits of the streaming platform. As well as its club news functions, the site provides a live match centre and a blog feature alongside the live stream and in-play highlights options. The goal is to make the platform the go-to service for following the county in an uber-competitive market.
Warren says: “We are well aware that there are many other ways than our platforms to consume your cricket – whether that’s BBC Sport, Cricinfo or many other means.
The club website's live match centre provides fans with a live commentary option, as well as in-play statistics, highlights and a scorecard.
“But we do believe that with our video features, we have an advantage in that regard. And then when there is rain around, you wouldn’t get that level of information elsewhere – it would just be that play is delayed.”
With unparalleled success, though, comes an added level of expectation amongst a community of fans whose access to their local team has never been greater or easier.
“Once you’ve introduced something new, it quickly becomes something that isn’t new anymore,” he says. “And when it doesn’t work, you find out very quickly because fans have got used to the stream being top quality and the sound being crystal clear.
“Suddenly that expectation – even though it’s free – does rise. If you’d told me two years ago that we’d be streaming County Championship cricket to half a million people, I’d probably have said: ‘How’s that happened?’”
Warren is understandably wary of making promises about where county cricket’s streaming revolution heads next. External factors beyond the counties’ control could make the initiative a short-term one. The viewing figures have shown that an audience exists and that empty seats do not necessarily correlate to public apathy.
It makes the next domestic rights deal in 2020 an intriguing proposition. The presence of The Hundred on terrestrial television – the soon-to-be-launched city-based competition – is proof of an appetite to boost the game’s national appeal.
Ultimately, if county cricket’s free-to-air digital revolution can reignite a nation’s attachment to its domestic cricket, it will have succeeded.
As Warren says: “The numbers are fantastic from a Somerset point of view, but probably the top of my list and the end goal is to try and grow our sport, our club and our brand. Anything that helps grow county cricket – whether that comes from us, the ECB or Sky – can only be a good thing.”