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ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: The comprehensive commercial review

After the Cricket World Cup was won in unprecedented fashion, SportsPro editor at large Eoin Connolly looks back on the tournament, breaks down the numbers, and outlines what it all means for the commercial growth of the sport.

by Eoin Connolly
ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: The comprehensive commercial review

It was the marathon tournament, barely settled at the line.

On a golden Sunday evening where tension, bedlam and euphoria swept through Lord’s, hosts England won the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup for the first time. A gallant New Zealand side had been held off on boundaries scored after a tie and a tied tiebreaker; eight other wearied teams already gone after seven weeks and 48 games in total.

The stark facts do no justice at all to the occasion, a game that built slowly and finished wildly, improbably, and unforgettably, painting the famous old ground in an unrecognisable shade of unchecked glee. England’s players are the overnight sensation that took years to be recognised, and New Zealand’s the impeccable picture of sportsmanship. Few global tournaments of any type have enjoyed finals of such spectacle and texture.

When the fever dream of the match subsides, however, it will leave questions about the future direction of the sport and its showpiece event. The 2019 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup was a bumper helping of world class cricket, but did it make the cricket world much bigger? Has the ICC hit upon a template that will outlast its next edition in India in 2023, or is this a placeholder awaiting a sport less dependent on one dominant market?

Whatever the answers may be, the commercial growth of the tournament and the sport continues. This is SportsPro’s commercial review of the 12th Cricket World Cup.

England's Jos Buttler sets off after running out New Zealand's Martin Guptill to win the 2019 Cricket World Cup

Media

The ICC sells the media rights to its global tournaments over an eight-year period and has sublicensed them all to India’s Star Sports until 2023. This year’s tournament, then, serves as a useful health check for the state of that US$2.5 billion partnership.

The headline figures are suitably eye-catching. Going into the final, the ICC revealed the previous six weeks drew 675 million unique viewers across 220 territories on 46 different TV channels. There were 2.6 billion video clip views recorded across ICC digital and social platforms, with the official social channels adding 12 million new followers and attracting 386 million engagements.

Games involving India, as expected, were the best-performing by far, not just in terms of linear ratings but on digital platforms as well. Their semi-final defeat to New Zealand delivered 25.3 million concurrent views on the over-the-top (OTT) outlet Hotstar, breaking the world record set during the Indian Premier League earlier this year. Only a handful of day-night matches were played, with most scheduled during the day to make the most of prime time on the subcontinent.

Indian streaming platform Hotstar recorded 25.3 million concurrent viewers during India's semi-final defeat to New Zealand 

South Asian fans within the host nation were also engaged. A peak audience of 1.8 million tuned in on pay-TV Sky Sports to follow India’s chase against England in the group phase, among the highest audiences before the finals, while advertisers of expat-targeted services like money transfers featured heavily during broadcasts of games played by subcontinent teams.

Broadcast innovations were employed in service of greater explanation, with the ICC and production partner Sunset+Vine working player tracking, augmented reality (AR) and analytics into the global coverage through the likes of Chyronhego, CricViz and specialist camera suppliers Batcam and Spidercam.

On the digital side, the growing power of original content was underlined by the presence of dedicated colour teams at each match. They collected footage from around the grounds, which was edited into miniature post-game films from the middle of the tournament onwards to be shared amongst the highlights and player interviews. A three-minute cut made after the final had been watched 3.3 million times on Twitter by the time of writing.

Sponsorship

There were 21 official partners of the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019, all of them secured centrally by the global governing body. That created certainty, but also an incentive for brands to target activations not at a paywalled audience in England and Wales but primarily at India. 

Newcomer Uber’s biggest campaign featured Indian captain Virat Kohli, while its promotional presence in the host nation was subdued. Coca-Cola activations were also most prominent on the subcontinent, where a six-language strategy delivered over four billion impressions on social media. There were 770 million views of Coca-Cola’s portfolio during live games, while 100 million users interacted with an in-built ‘cheer’ feature on Hotstar.

The sense that South Asia was a sponsorship priority was encapsulated in the presence of Bira 91 as the official beer of the tournament. Its products – which also include the hot sauce brand promoted on broadcasts with every six scored – are not widely available in the UK, and one pre-tournament report in The Times suggested the organisers had spent UK£500,000 to subsidise high wholesale prices. Back in India, though, Bira 91 hosted a series of parties and live screenings across major cities.

All the global partners were heavily represented at grounds and fan zones. Yet with the exception of Chinese smartphone brand Oppo – working to multiply the effect of its concurrent sponsorship of Wimbledon – there was limited interest in creating an early association within the UK, something that might have sustained efforts to build wider awareness. That may encourage the ICC, after the bonanza of a 2023 tournament in India, to consider carving out rights for the local organising committee to sell.

Brands like Nissan and Coca-Cola have been more visible on digital channels since England’s triumph, while ECB partners like NatWest have used other outlets to promote their association with cricket during the tournament.

Chinese smartphone brand Oppo was making its Cricket World Cup sponsorship debut

The local organisers

The primary challenges for the local organising committee, Cricket World Cup England and Wales 2019, were to manage event logistics, coordinate short and long-range marketing initiatives with the ECB and, last but not least, to sell tickets.

The year’s tournament actually sold fewer tickets than the last edition in Australia and New Zealand four years ago, but that was mostly by virtue of limited capacity. Most of the 800,000 seats were filled, with 650,000 tickets sold and another 150,000 going to partners and other stakeholders. 3.2 million applications were received for tickets from about 400,000 fans across 140 countries, with over 700,000 submissions for Old Trafford’s 26,000 seats for India v Pakistan in mid-June.

Crowds were diverse, with every team enjoying a sizeable following and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in particular playing what nearly amounted to home games. With 100,000 tickets reserved for under-16s, spectators were younger on average than those at most English grounds. There were some ticketing glitches, especially early on: issues with distribution caused 2,000 fans to miss West Indies’ second-day victory over Pakistan.

With fans dissuaded from using secondary platforms, there were moments of strain for the ticket resale system. Australia’s unexpected defeat to South Africa in the final round-robin game meant they switched places with India for the semi-finals, leaving many tickets for the latter fixture in the hands of Indian fans. A reported 41 per cent of tickets for the final were also held by India followers, which threatened a major headache when their team were eliminated.

But both Edgbaston and Lord’s filled regardless, with the common sight of fans in India shirts holding England flags suggesting a different type of alternative arrangement had been made.

Fans of Asian nations were omnipresent at World Cup matches

The hosts

If you know only one marketing-based factoid about England’s 1999 Cricket World Cup, it’s more than likely the one about the hosts going out before the official tournament song was released.

There was little chance of that this time, even as England made heavy work of an elongated opening round, with Loryn and Rudimental’s number already ubiquitous at the Oval on opening day. Yet as the cricket community agonised for another 40-odd days over how much attention the tournament had received, there was a prophetic refrain in that song to be heard again and again – and again and again – during breaks in play.

“Stand by: there’s a million other people here tonight.”

And on Sunday evening, there they were. A fair few million, in fact, as Channel 4 shared domestic TV coverage with Sky Sports and free-to-air cricket returned to UK screens for the first time in close to 14 years. A combined peak of 8.3 million watched across the TV channels, with more on live streams, in pubs and squares, and in a heaving fanzone in London’s Trafalgar Square.

Finally, at the absolute end of the tournament, the English cricket authorities had the public breakout they had spent four years building towards. England’s victory dominated TV news bulletins and newspaper front pages as the Cricket World Cup received more local coverage than at any point in the preceding two months. 

For the past four years, more than a few cricket writers have talked of their wish for more people to know the thrilling, diverse and relatable bunch of players who have taken England from punchline to powerhouse in ODIs. Between their breathless evening on the field and their impressive displays in the media, led by a thoughtful and articulate captain in Eoin Morgan, they at least gave the public a chance to see them at their best.

Fans packed into London's Trafalgar Square to watch the final

A Monday morning visit to an already-planned event for schoolchildren at the Oval, where the tournament began at the end of May, was preferred to a larger-scale celebration. It was an open house opportunity for fans to see their heroes and the trophy, but it was also a statement that this success – coming two years after a home world title for the women’s team – should be the start of something, rather than the end.

For the ECB, what has been learned will be almost as significant as what was accomplished. Over the course of the Cricket World Cup, initiatives run with the local organising committee made some contact with over a million school-age children. Its South Asian Action Plan, aimed to draw cricket fans from those communities closer, will have been boosted by turnout from those supporters. Fan zones were geared as much towards introducing the sport as to screening the action.

Audience data has been gathered and will now be organised in the hope of restoring dwindling audiences and player bases at all levels. Before the competition started, Cricket World Cup 2019 managing director Steve Elworthy told SportsPro that the plans in place for subsequent growth “will be one of the success factors of this”.

“If you have a headline in 2020, what would you want it to be?” he added. “That the ECB have taken control of the opportunity that it brought.”

Elworthy will rejoin the ECB in the months ahead as the de facto tournament director of The Hundred, the much-discussed new domestic franchise competition that will form the bedrock of a limited, longer-term return to free-to-air television with the BBC. The merits of that competition remain hotly contested, while reports this week indicate further tensions lie ahead in its governance. Nonetheless, a chance to work with the national broadcaster on a project like this will be eagerly anticipated.

It will not have escaped notice that the exceptionally high viewing figures for England’s victory were not quite as exceptionally high as the Wimbledon men’s singles final that ran alongside it. That tournament’s enormous success, out of proportion to the national following for tennis, is a continued sign of the value of a defined identity and the BBC’s multi-platform backing.

Free-to-air coverage, like World Cup glory, is no panacea. Still, Sky’s decision, coupled with the improbable conclusion to the final, has added an unexpected double shot of adrenaline to the reanimation of England’s national summer game. The world champions might be said to have earned their luck over the last four years. They certainly got it at Lord’s, and took full advantage.

It’s now up to the ECB to do the same.

England's trophy celebrations comprised an event for schoolchildren at the Oval

The future

In the decade ahead, the ICC faces its own version of the challenge currently being tackled by the host board: how to break beyond an existing fanbase, however lucrative it may be in the short term.  

The ten-team composition of this year’s ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup was able to super-serve fans of the game, providing ample opportunity to enjoy leading teams and players and creating an enormous volume of media content into the bargain. It also provided a fine showcase for a playing format whose identity has been challenged in the past decade, demonstrating how it demands skills developed in both Test matches and T20s. 

Yet with no debutants at the tournament, and few genuine moments of jeopardy until the last fortnight, it was also a competition that offered few points of entry to the newcomer. It was maybe a little fitting that England and New Zealand were the two teams to produce such a gripping finale at Lord’s, given that it was their unexpected defeats in late June and early July that sparked an ever more processional opening round back into life.

A ten-team first group stage is slated again for India in 2023 under the terms of Star Sports’ rights deal – though with a handful of teams finding reason to complain about the manner of their elimination, there may be some additional tweaks. Intense competition from outside the top eight automatic qualifiers could yield a slightly different entry list but a properly global Cricket World Cup may be some way off yet.

Until then, it appears that the heavy lifting of expanding cricket’s fanbase and diversifying its economy will fall on the shortest format of the game. A growing array of franchise leagues are emerging in new territories, while 16-team editions of the rebranded men’s and women’s ICC T20 World Cup will be played in Australia next year.

The past seven weeks have offered a polished, often potent demonstration of just what it is that cricket fans love in their sport and a few moments that show why they evangelise about it. The debate remains over whether the current ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup is best set up to celebrate it. Not even this tournament has been long enough to settle that.