England may be celebrating playing the 1,000th Test this week at Edgbaston, but the prospect of 10,000 or so empty seats on the first couple of days may provide a reminder of the challenges facing the oldest format of the international game.
Certainly ticket sales at Edgbaston for the first couple of days of the series are modest. With about 15,000 expected to attend on the first day (a figure that includes more than a 1,000 complimentary tickets) and just over 13,000 for the second, the ground will be little over half full of its capacity of just under 25,000. And while sales for the next couple of days are better – the third day, Friday, is almost a sell-out – the spectacle of so many empty seats may both dampen spirits and stiffen the resolve at the ECB to explore new avenues to engage with a new audience.
It is not just Birmingham that is struggling to attract spectators, either. Sales at the Ageas Bowl (Southampton) are modest – first day sales for the fourth Test are currently around 8,000, with fourth day sales around 5,000 – while even venues with a strong sales records such as The Oval and Trent Bridge are facing a challenge to sell tickets for this series. Trent Bridge, for example, has sold around 13,000 tickets for the third day of the third Test – which is a Monday – while The Oval has sold around 7,000 for the fourth day of the final Test; also a Monday.
While series against India have long been seen as premium events for the grounds vying for hosting rights, these figures suggest that the Test format no longer attracts spectators in the way the shorter formats do – these sides recently played six limited-overs games in front of full houses in England and Wales – and that only Ashes Tests can all but guarantee sell-out stadiums. At Edgbaston, at least, the majority of ticket sales have been made to England supporters which suggest the India fans who filled stadiums for the white balls games are less keen to attend Test cricket.
There are, perhaps, another couple of lessons. One is that Thursday starts offer grounds the best opportunity to gain decent sales figures over the first four days of the match – both in terms of cooperate hospitality and general ticket sales – while the other is that the newer venues – especially those in out-of-town locations such as the Ageas Bowl – face a real struggle to match the attendances achieved at the traditional venues. Only at Lord’s, who have an optimal Thursday start, are ticket sales strong for the first four days of games.
There will be some focus on the price of tickets, too. But with the asking price for Edgbaston starting at GBP29 and many complimentary tickets given away (mainly to those involved in All Stars and to members of the armed services), it seems as if the problem may be some way deeper than that.
The news comes at a time when sales of tickets of the Vitality Blast – the domestic T20 competition – are strong. Attendances in 2018 are up around 80,000 on the same stage on 2017 which was, in turn, a record year.