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Gloucestershire selling County Ground could save club – and earn them a Hundred franchise

County Ground
County Ground

WG Grace, Wally Hammond and Gilbert Jessop are names that conjure a glorious era of Gloucestershire cricketing heritage and the thought of hosting the ‘West Country Wizards’ at an out-of-town concrete bowl in the 2030 Hundred will horrify many supporters.

It is surprisingly rare, when you consider the financial problems of county cricket, for a club to cash in on its biggest asset, sell up and move, but the cold, hard economic reality of modern day sport is biting in the shires.

Last year Gloucestershire posted a loss of £570,000. “There is no disguising the fact that this has not been a good year financially for the club,” warned treasurer, Rebecca Watkin, in the club accounts. “We certainly cannot continue to post deficits indefinitely.”

The club had not met targets on income from ticket receipts as post-covid crowds turned out to be lower than expected. The small footprint of the County Ground prohibits expansion that has proved lucrative for other counties, such as conferencing and hotels. Throw in some bad luck with weather and it shows how fragile county finances can be.

Most county grounds were built by the Victorians when road layouts were very different, cities and towns smaller and there was no car parking to worry about. Getting to the County Ground in Bristol involves negotiating the tight warren of streets around the ground, and while a city centre setting should in theory be good for walk up crowds, the facilities are not what modern day audiences expect. “The ground may be historic but it’s not the best by a long way,” wrote one Telegraph reader on Friday in the comments section on the website. “Parking is poor as are facilities especially for members. No telling if Glos will even be viable by 2030 at the rate we are going.”

It is this last point that prompts plans to up sticks and copy Hampshire and Durham by moving to a purpose-built new ground that would allow the club to provide a better experience for spectators as well as the kind of cricket training facilities that are expected by modern players. Hosting more concerts is possible too without having to worry about residents.

Hosting international cricket can be a dangerous game for counties, as Gloucestershire have discovered in recent years trying to sell T20s or ODIs against modest opposition at the fag end of the summer. With the Hundred eating up August, it is not a surprise crowds are not what they were.

Around 20 years ago, clubs were encouraged to expand and become international venues but there is not enough high grade bilateral cricket to go around now and with the rise of franchise leagues, that is a situation heading one way.

‘History has been sacrificed for progress and securing the club’s future’

It is no surprise that Gloucestershire officials are talking about potential Hundred hosting. The expansion of the tournament from eight to 10 teams will happen by 2030 and the south west is in prime position to become one of the new hubs.

Richard Gould, the ECB chief executive, lives in Bristol, worked for Bristol City, and knows the west country region having been in charge at Somerset before joining Surrey. He sees untapped potential in a west country Hundred team and the ECB are understood to be supportive of the club’s move.

Selling the County Ground is nothing new to Gloucestershire. They sold it off in 1919 to chocolate makers Fry’s having nearly gone bust in 1915. The club bought the ground back in 1933 but sold it again in the 1970s to Royal Sun Alliance, only buying it again in 2004.

This time there will be no going back. It occupies prime real estate land worth possibly up to £40m to developers who will eye a big opportunity after the successful construction and sale of 147 apartments on the site in 2012. Those that bought flats lured by the sight of county cricket out of the kitchen window might not be so happy.

For the club, the new home will be a greenfield site north of the city close to the M4; history sacrificed for progress and securing the club’s future.

Other counties will be watching closely over the next few years. Northamptonshire have denied in the past plans to sell off their ground but, like Bristol, it occupies valuable real estate land in a growing town.

As Middlesex are discovering, a vibrant home that can diversify away from cricket is vital to a club’s finances. Some of the wealthy Test grounds may be saddled with debts but they have an asset they can exploit and the Hundred equity sale to give them a future windfall.

You cannot blame Gloucestershire for wanting a piece of that pie. Given how mercenary WG was in his time, he would probably approve.

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