Member engagement in county cricket after the Yorkshire racism scandal

Clubs in the county game have a co-op ownership model – so how is this responding to problems such as falling participation and post-Covid debts?

The racism scandal at Yorkshire County Cricket Club has led to a high-profile member vote on a series of reforms – a reminder of the co-operative model used in the county game.

Yorkshire is one of more than a dozen clubs in the county cricket network to use the co-op model but this has not kept the game out of trouble over recent years, with declining participation and rising debts affecting a number of clubs.

Meanwhile, onlookers have pointed to a low turnout in the vote on Yorkshire’s reforms, with ESPN’s cricket editor David Hopps writing that this “underlines that Yorkshire have suffered both from a flood of member resignations or non-renewals”.

The row stems from complaints by former Yorkshire cricketer, Azeem Rafiq, who said he had been subjected to racist abuse and bullying during his two spells at the club, between 2008–2014, and 2016–2018. 

Accusing the club of being institutionally racist, he complained officially in 2018, but an independent inquiry was not launched until 2020, leading to criticism of the club for its handling of the affair. Its chair resigned in November 2021, being replaced by Lord Kamlesh Patel, who drew up plans to restructure the club.

Of the club’s 6,000 members, only 3,000 are full voting members; of those, only 1,100 voted, in person or via proxy, at an emergency general meeting. Held at the club’s Headingley ground, it saw 80% vote in favour of the changes.

There were three votes at the meeting: one to ratify Lord Patel as chair; one to release Patel and others from personal liability on decisions taken, after threats of legal action; and finally one to restructure the board to include independent members.

After his plan was accepted by members, Lord Patel said: “We welcome the outcome of this EGM and thank the members for their full and proper consideration, an open exchange of views, and their votes. It means Yorkshire can stage internationals against New Zealand and South Africa this summer, in the process averting a major financial crisis. It is an overwhelming vote for positive change.

“This support will help Yorkshire County Cricket Club to be an inclusive and welcoming place and gives us the clarity and certainty we need to keep building this great club..”

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The England Cricket Board (ECB) said: “We are pleased that Yorkshire members have given their overwhelming support to these reforms. This is an important step forward in bringing about real change and setting the club on course for a more inclusive future.

“We welcome the progress made by Lord Patel so far, as well as his commitment to making the club one which everyone, from all backgrounds, can be proud of. ”

But the changes did not come without dissent – even though failure to ratify them would have cost the club the right to host international matches, threatening its survival. At one point, Lord Patel threatened to resign, warning that failure to ratify the vote would leave the club unable to compete in the domestic season or pay its players.

Opposing him, former chair Robin Smith had led a rearguard action with threats of legal action against the reforms, arguing that the ECB was threatening the club’s independence. He accused Lord Patel of behaving undemocratically and called for his removal; but Yorkshire says the restructure follows Sport England guidelines.

The row goes to the heart of the club’s co-op status: Mr Smith is unhappy that the new board will have eight independent members, not drawn from the club membership, alongside two board members from the membership, plus the CEO and director of cricket.

“A four to one ratio of outsiders to members as non-executives on the club’s board would so change the character of the club as to render it unrecognisable as a Yorkshire institution,” wrote Mr Smith in a leaked letter to Patel.

But the reforms also had outspoken supporters. Julian Metherell, chair of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, backed the changes when he appeared before MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee in February, and has accused Mr Smith of “combative” behaviour.

Another former chair, Colin Graves, also supported the reforms – even though they reduced his own influence at Yorkshire. The Graves family trust is owed £15m by the club and, until Lord Patel’s changes, had a veto on board appointments and dismissals.

A third ex-chair, Roger Hutton, had complained to the DCMS committee that Mr Graves, who was executive chair between 2012 and 2015, had too much power at the club. 

These questions of control and governance have come at a crucial time for Yorkshire – and for county cricket in general, with falling participation in the sport and the pandemic worsening the debt affecting many clubs.

Problems in the game make an engaged, supportive membership vital – for instance, in its annual report for 2021, Yorkshire said that “a significant proportion of members donated their annual membership fees, together with a large proportion of members donating the ticket money from their purchases, and notable additional donations from members who wanted to help further.”

The livestreaming of matches on Youtube is also helping to make the county game more accessible. Clubs are also streaming their AGMs; last week, Surrey County Cricket Club posted its AGM online – and directly addressed the scandal at its northern rival. CEO Steve Elworthy said times are changing for the game – from the “brutal” pandemic season and the job losses it had brought, to changing audience demands.

“People’s values have changed,” he said. “We need to reflect that we’ve got probably hundreds of thousands of people coming through the gates this year, and we need to make sure that we can reflect those changes.”

He saluted Azeem Rafiq’s “incredibly powerful testimony” and committed his own club to increasing diversity and equity. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” he said, “where you are from, which background you come from, or how big your bank balance is. If you want to access cricket, you should be able to access cricket.”

Mr Elworthy said his club should also be ambitious on sustainability and carbon neutrality, and improve member engagement.

Board member Ebony Rainford-Brent, chair of Surrey’s Culture and Values Board, gave a presentation on the ACE programme, a response by the club to the falling numbers of cricketers from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. Working in partnership with other clubs – including Yorkshire – and backed by ECB and mutual insurer Royal London, the programme also targets other under-represented groups such as white working class people and those from eastern European backgrounds.

“Let’s change it from a narrative of ‘we wish’ to ‘let’s make something happen’,” she said.

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