By Jeremy Blackmore
Somerset are marking the culmination of a 13-year journey to bring regular international cricket to Taunton as they get ready to host England’s sold-out T20 international against South Africa next month.
In that period, the club has redeveloped the County Ground to international standards and added extra capacity without incurring huge amounts of debt, while increasing its financial independence. It’s a real success story in times when county cricket’s financial problems have been seldom out of the headlines.
A number of attractive new pavilions and stands now line the boundary edges around the ground, allowing the club to play host to 12,500 fans for England’s game next month. The developments also mean the club also acts as a venue for conferences, banquets and other functions. It also hopes to be one of the host grounds for the new T20 competition starting in 2020.
Somerset chairman Andy Nash explains the club’s vision when the project started in 2004 under Giles Clarke’s leadership: “In those days probably two thirds or more of Somerset’s income was the ECB annual distribution. That is not a basis for a sustainable, successful club. We had to reverse that and ensure we were only enjoying support from the ECB to around 30 per cent of our income, which is about the current position.
“To achieve that and to continue to reduce that, we had to build a significant year-round business, which we’ve done. We also knew just how financially attractive hosting international cricket is. So, we’ve built a business plan that doesn’t depend on international matches vitally, but when we do host them they’re going to provide very significant and completely incremental income.”
The development of the ground was done in phases only when each could be afforded. “We didn’t bet the farm” as Nash explains, with only manageable debt incurred which the club anticipates paying off ahead of schedule. The acquisition and sale of land played an important part as did a number of grants.
For example, the development of the Pegasus Flats adjacent to the ground in turn helped fund the new Somerset and Trescothick Stands. The club also negotiated the purchase of part of the neighbouring churchyard which involved moving a number of bodies under the jurisdiction of the County Archaeologist.
There have been plenty of white knuckle moments along the way, admits Nash, who adds that the club was fortunate to start the process before the financial crash of 2008.
The club has been fully supported by Taunton Deane Borough Council, which recognises the benefits international cricket will bring to the local economy.
“From ECB research around other international grounds, an ODI or international T20 brings a seven-figure windfall to the local community in terms of everything from hotels, restaurants, bars, car parking, etc, which is a big windfall for a community like Taunton Deane,” says Nash. “We have seven home games in the Women’s World Cup coming up next month as well, so all of those will be multipliers in the local economy.
“We’re waiting to find out allocation of matches in the Men’s World Cup in 2019, but that will clearly put Taunton on the world map. TV audiences will be vast. The town won’t have had a better opportunity to showcase itself in living memory.”
Ultimately, says Nash, the decisions the club has taken have been borne out of “hard-headed commercial realism”.
“We’re not playing cricket just to make money, but try playing professional cricket now if you’re not making money because it underpins everything we do including our core business which of course is cricket. If you’re not financially strong, you can’t invest in your player pathway and you can’t invest in the squads. One of the reasons we’re the longest serving county in Division One is because of our financial strength. The two things are inextricably linked.”
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, May 19 2017
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