SPECIAL REPORT: Call for Â£1m investment in Northants County Cricket is no '˜plea for help' says chairman
A challenging innings lies ahead for Northamptonshire County Cricket, but the chairman has dispelled notions the club is a financial crisis as it seeks to attract a Â£1 million investment.
In his first interview with the Northampton Chronicle & Echo since announcing the Wantage Road club was looking to attract 10 to 15 wealthy shareholders and become a limited company, Gavin Warren believes the dark times are in the past.
The last publicly available accounts made for difficult reading with the club showing more than £400,000 of losses in the 2014/15 year.
But after ploughing £3.5 million into the County Ground in the past five years, the former accountant says the club is beginning to plug its budget with off-pitch activities, from hosting conferences, to opening a new gym - though there are no plans to return open air concerts to Wantage Road, after the 2014 Tom Jones performance made a heavy loss.
He said: “When I came in 2014 there was a serious financial problem.
“Our initial concern was to make sure we got through the first 12 to 18 months; our funding from the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) had dropped by £400,000 and we had to plug that gap.
“So we decided to invest in the ground. What we wanted to do was to become less reliant on the ECB.
“Now we’ve got fantastic non-matchday facilities and gradually we are getting there.”
Mr Warren, the fourth generation of his family to come from Roade and a dad of two, says losses will show on the balance sheet for the next two years.
But he said slowly the club is beginning to make enough money to cover the huge yearly drop in funding from the ECB, which came about when Northants trained off-spinner Graeme Swann retired and Monty Panesar lost his place in the England side.
“We looked at selling the pub, we looked at raising a bond,” said Mr Warren.
“But we haven’t done that, I have tried to put in place a five-year financial strategy - we can’t turn things round straight away.”
But alarm bells rang a fortnight ago when Northants Cricket announced it was seeking to raise £1 million in investment to clear some short term debts and reduce the interest it pays on them.
Despite some fears the move was a plea for help, Mr Warren says it is just about getting on an even keel quicker.
“We want to fast track what we were hoping to achieve in 2020,” he said.
“If we do that, it will give us more money to spend on the playing side.
“I am not here to make profit - I am here to break even and give the coach the most competitive squad he can have.”
Mr Warren says there has already been interest from investors, who would be in place and ready to form a new board towards the end of 2016.
But there will be an entrenched legal provision preventing the ground from being developed for any non-cricket purpose. It means there will be no benefit to any individual investor should the ground ever need to be sold.
So what is in it for the investors?
“Pride,” Mr Warren says, and the knowledge a professional cricket team will continue in the town for the next “100 years”
He said: “The key criteria is people have to have the right motivation. And that motivation is to keep cricket in Northamptonshire. Clearly this will be something for a philanthropist.
“If people don’t come forward we will carry on as we are and we will get to our destination slower.
“We are just trying to do a fast lap.”
Certainly in terms of the club’s T20 team, the Steelbacks, gate sales are already looking rosy for the 2016 season. All but three corporate boxes have been taken for the season ahead.
While the shorter, punchier version of the game is booming, Mr Warren said the club makes big losses on its gates for the four-day game, often held in midweek to minimal ticket sales.
He says it exists almost purely as a way to display put talents - such as double century hitting Ben Duckett - in the shop window for a potentially lucrative England squad call up.
Many believe the sport is suffering from a lack of coverage on terrestrial television, with both county and international cricket exclusively shown on Sky channels and Mr Warren agrees.
“Our view is we need to get more cricket on free-to-air channels, but at the minute we can’t because we are contracted until 2014 with Sky.
“The key thing is we need to expose more children to cricket.
“We want to get a bat and ball in every household.”
By the end of the year, if the bid to attract investors is successful, a new board will have to decide whether Mr Warren stays on as chair.
However, still a keen fast bowler, few can deny his enthusiasm for the game.
“It’s an addiction really,” he said.
“I think the investors have to be of my sort of mind set.
“They have got to be passionate about keeping cricket in Northamptonshire.
”We aren’t looking for asset cutters to come in.”