Are we seeing the beginning of a new era for the followers of county cricket? At a time of the focus being on the development of franchise cricket and its implications for the first-class counties is the real story the development of a cricket support base that is preponderantly away from the grounds and not at them?
The InCider has been lucky enough to be able to spend time with Ben Warren, Somerset’s Digital Marketing and Communications Executive and the man behind the social media growth of the club, to get a better understanding of the growth of Somerset’s social media profile and the club’s reach beyond the Cooper Associates County Ground.
I often say to anyone who will listen how proud I am to be a man of Somerset and how deeply my life is affiliated so closely to my county club.
The developments on the field at Taunton in the last year with the return of Andy Hurry and the appointment of Jason Kerr as head coach have been clear for all to see as has the improvements to the ground and infrastructure, There is real tangible evidence of the forward thinking and ambition at the club with the state-of-the-art floodlights now sitting proudly at the Cooper Associates County Ground and visible to all who drive into the county town.
But it is in a third area that Somerset have arguably out-performed both of these, the growth of the Club’s social media profile and its reach beyond the confines of the CACG to Somerset supporters far and wide.
The evidence of Somerset’s success in this regard was provided by last week’s game against Cardiff MCCU where Somerset reported over 100,000 views on their YouTube channel over the two and a half days. Evidence yet again that a huge demand exists among the county’s supporters for this coverage.
It is hard for me now to believe how hard it was to follow Somerset’s fortunes when I was a child if you weren’t at the ground. The Bristol Evening Post would, in its stop-press section, have the score after about 10 overs which, when I got home from school, wasn’t that enlightening. The only way to get the days score was to listen to Radio 2 in the early evening for the “cricket scoreboard”.
Of course, since the mid-seventies’ media coverage has moved on quite a lot. We have become accustomed to the internet providing us with scores and reports and modern mobile phone apps alert us when a wicket falls or an innings closes. But the next stage of development has been the county clubs use of social media.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have all been with us for a decent number of years now and have become an indispensable provide way for supporters to get news on and interact with the club and its players as well as fellow supporters. The savvy counties, and Somerset sit proudly as one of the best in this regard, have been working to build their social media following in the last eight years with astonishing results. At the start of the 2011 season Somerset had 3,621 followers on Facebook and Twitter combined, by the start of 2019 the total (including Instagram) number of followers had risen to 381,584.
Data as at the end of 2018 for all 18 first class counties places Somerset (surprise surprise) in second place overall behind Surrey but that does not tell the whole story. Somerset, with its population of just over half a million is outperforming Lancashireby 40,000 followers and Yorkshire by 154,000 but those counties can draw on populations of 3.7 million and 8.3 million respectively.
Ranking the counties social media following relative to their population (an arbitrary but valid one in my opinion) Somerset rank first with 69%, Surrey have 42%, Lancashire 28% and Yorkshire a meagre 3%.
These figures in themselves are impressive enough but in July 2017 Somerset sought to lead the next stage of development when it trialled live streaming of Somerset’s home games of that season. Somerset had shrewdly realised that there are many of us who due to work and life commitments aren’t able to get to The CACG as much as they would like and that the growth of the use of mobile devices to watch video allied to development of technology enabling high quality video steaming to be provided to these devices allowed the club to engage on a daily basis with these supporters.
It is to Ben and Somerset’s immense credit that they were among the first to recognise that there are a large number of loyal followers of county cricket who have the time and ability to engage with games but are unable to attend a whole days play as much as they want and provide a solution.
The BBC should also take some credit for their commitment to ball by ball coverage of every county game which started a few years before which had proved there was substantial demand for coverage from supporters away from the ground.
In the last season and a half Somerset’s engagement using his media has grown at an astronomical rate. In 2018 Somerset had just under a million views of the live stream which accumulated almost 163,000 hours of watching.
Throughout 2018 the Club offered a free stream of every non-televised home Specsavers County Championship, Royal London One-Day Cup and Vitality Blast match. The decision of Sky to not cover the rescheduled Blast quarter-final tie led to almost 22,500 views for that game alone while the final day of the Lancashire Championship game drew just under 15,000.
I am sure I am not alone in trying to plan my work days so that I can grab a half an hour or so of the coverage at lunchtime at the very least. The syncing of the BBC Somerset commentary and the quality of the coverage plays a very large part in the success and while at the moment the camera view is confined to the wicket only this does not detract from the benefit so many of us get from the coverage.
It is only when you look at what the other counties currently provide, or don’t, that you realise how well catered for Somerset are. With developments for the new season such as the ground wide Wi-Fi coverage to enable supporters in the ground to access their social media and replays allied to on-screen statistics, replays and rumoured technology that will enable the camera to follow the ball, it is clear that Somerset are not resting on their success.
This is all exceptionally good news for devotees of county cricket and may in years to come be seen as the beginning of a resurgence in championship cricket by demonstrating to the media and more importantly the sport’s governing bodies that the sport as it moves into the 21stcentury is one where a significant proportion of the “spectators” for each days play will watch remotely rather than at the ground.
Somerset supporters are in the doubly fortunate position in that they have a county which is clearly at the vanguard of these developments and is committed to continue to seek ways of improving the provision.
Can you imagine what these statistics would look lie in six months’ time if Tom Abell lifts the championship trophy?
First published on The Incider on 1 April 2019.
For the purposes of this analysis the population of Lancashire includes Cheshire and Merseyside, both core areas of support irrespective of geographical boundaries.