Warwickshire would probably have had to leave Edgbaston if Birmingham City Council had not loaned them £20million to redevelop their stadium, chief executive Colin Povey revealed today.
Defending the club’s decision to compete in next season’s Twenty20 as “Birmingham Bears”, Povey insisted the council’s ongoing support has ensured the famous cricket ground remains an asset for the city rather than becoming its “problem child.”
The name change, requested by the council, acceded to by the club and sanctioned by the ECB, has angered many Warwickshire fans.
Supporters beyond the Second City are justifiably aggrieved while cricket followers country-wide are concerned the switch could set a dangerous precedent.
But, while respecting the feelings of the move’s opponents, Povey argues the club must move with the times - and reckons that without the council loan for Warwickshire these times would be very hard indeed.
“Without the support of Birmingham City Council we would not have retained international cricket,” he said.
“And without that this club could not have survived in the way it was. We would have a dilapidated stadium rotting on its stanchions and would probably have had to move away. That is the reality.
“It is self-evident that the relationship with the city council has been positive. It has put us back on the map with the ICC and ECB and driven our youth cricket, girls cricket, disability cricket and schools competitions so that, instead of Edgbaston being the problem child for the city, we are starting to be a big asset again.
“There is a whole set of local-based initiatives around this name change and it centres around our relationship with the council. They stuck their hand in their pocket to the tune of £20million, have continued to offer support by restructuring the loan and also invested in the ICC Champions Trophy package.
“Off the back of that, they said ‘we see a good opportunity to drive up attendances at Edgbaston - would you consider rebranding the T20 team?”
“That had quite a bit of appeal to us. The ECB is revamping the competition and pushing initiatives to increase participation and Birmingham is a critical hub for that. We know from our own research that Edgbaston is less successful at dragging in the very local population than places like Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and The Oval.
“So these things are coming together: relaunching the competition and furthering our partnership with Birmingham City Council.”
The club’s debt to the council is clear. But is it reasonable for the council to ask Warwickshire to ditch the name represented with pride by hundreds of players over the last 130 years?
The change only applies in Twenty20, of course. And, who knows, maybe only for one season. But it rankles. An on-line petition opposing the switch rapidly attracted more than 1,000 signatures.
But Povey insists opposition from within the club’s membership is small.
“I don’t think anybody was kidding themselves that some members would not like this,” he said. “But of 50 emails and letters the club has received over this issue, nine came from members. A lot of signatories on that petition are not from Warwickshire but elsewhere, worried about the trend being followed.
“What I don’t want to do is ignore genuine fans who are our members and aggrieved. I met the guys behind the petition on Tuesday and had a genuinely constructive meeting. We talked about the wider context. I respect their views but also they have to understand we are looking at the wider benefits.
“‘Birmingham Bears’ is one thing. Is it, in itself, the magic ingredient? No. But the tournament is getting relaunched and we need to get people thinking about it in a different way. We have to find ways to widen our appeal and get more revenue from T20.
“The Friday-night slot is welcome and we will be looking to do a whole host of initiatives to pull in new audiences. This is a good chance to drive a larger local audience from a wider spectrum of people.”
Therein lies Warwickshire’s challenge: To attract more people to T20 matches than they have alienated by shedding the county’s name in it.
“During the Champions Trophy we engaged with a population we have not been able to access before,” Povey said. “There are a lot of people in the city who are passionate about cricket and therefore ought to be, if not necessarily candidates for membership, candidates for coming to Edgbaston as spectators.
“Our fan-base is loyal and consistent and appreciated, but it is not a natural T20 audience so we are trying to widen the appeal
“When is Edgbaston most vibrant? When we get above 10,000 in it and, even with a regular Sunday start we are not going to get 10,000 for championship cricket. But if we get the right fixtures with the right prices and promotions for T20, we could get 10,000 for perhaps two or three games next year.”