Interview with Fanos Hira of Worcestershire County Cricket Club

12th August 2020

What was Worcestershire County Cricket Club like before Covid?

Worcestershire County Cricket Club represents the region competing as one of 18 first class counties governed by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). 

Pre Covid, we were in an improving and strong position. We had gone through substantial changes to the Club, bought in additional rigour, governance and took at least a third off our debt. 

We had a lot of ideas for the future of the club and were optimistic that we could be debt free if we wanted to be within the next 3-5 years. 
Having reduced debt by over £2m and continued to invest enormously in our team, we were beginning to reap significant benefits.

We won the Vitality Blast in 2018 and having just lost with the last ball in 2019 we were in a competitive position, with ambitions to improve in all areas. 
We were committing substantial resources both on and off the pitch to expand.

Discussions were ongoing over expanding our facilities to improve disability access, create a museum, improve spectator and player facilities at our ground and mitigate the impacts of regular flooding at our ground.

Even before Covid resulted in a national lockdown, we faced the additional challenges of record floods in the first quarter of 2020.

Our business relies on membership, ticket sales, food and drink, conferences, weddings etc. Despite the hits this year, the steps we have taken give me the confidence that as a Club we are tighter and nimbler than ever, allowing us to adapt to whatever situations arise.

I am confident that we will come back better and stronger. 

Talk us through the plans you and the management team were making mid-March and before lockdown?

When news was emerging out of China in early January, we looked at contingency plans as soon as possible. 
In February we began running through scenarios, considering the ‘what if’s’, and alternative plans were being formulated. For example, we were considering home warm up matches as opposed to going abroad on tours.

The Club was due to go to Abu Dhabi in early March for pre-season training matches; some teams were already over there.

England for example were in Sri Lanka at the time that WCCC did our own risk assessments, which led to making the decision to cancel the tour. Whilst we are predominantly a cricket club, we could see that our other customers for events and hospitality were getting nervous. We anticipated postponements in the hospitality side of the business as a result.

On Monday 16 March Sarah Gluyas (our Company Secretary and Finance Manager) and I sat down and ran through various potential scenarios. It was clear to us that the impact would be significant.

What would happen if there was no season at all? What if all matches were behind closed doors? What if the season was delayed? 
From this work we expected a £1.1m hit to the Club’s profitability. 

For a Club which has historically been in overdraft, this causes a range of issues. We acted straight away. We had discussions with our bank (Clydesdale), who were very supportive, and from this we were comfortable early on that any potential liquidity issues over the next 6 months were sorted. 

On Wednesday 18 March we got all the staff together to communicate the scale of the problems we and all other businesses were facing, whilst reassuring our staff of our optimism that we could see a way through things. We have been regularly in contact with all our staff throughout this pandemic.

We asked our staff to be flexible, to work with us so that we could work with them. On the Friday the Government announced the Furlough scheme.

The following Monday we took action to furlough 21 of our 45 full time catering, staging, commercial and office staff. Whilst this was a difficult decision to make, we had long standing members of staff crying with relief because they feared much worse and could now spend time with their families. On the Friday we furloughed 9 of our 30 cricket staff. 

The collaboration with the ECB throughout this time has been important and welcome, the game during adversity got closer as all counties shared their challenges and responses. 

As a Club we organised conference calls with all our players, who we treated the same as all other staff.

We furloughed all playing staff, topping up pay to 90%, but we continued to offer ongoing health and psychological support to all employees.  We were concerned about the impact on morale and mental health. We saw the maintenance of this as critical at this difficult time. 

It was clear to the whole Club that we were all in this together. 

All staff faced challenges during this time, and we were all working harder than we ever had before. The announcement of dates for when the cricket season would return were greeted with relief, and positivity spread across the Club. 

We got all our players and staff on regular calls to update them on where things were.  For the players we were clear in letting them know throughout that we intended to bring them off furlough six weeks before the season started. The players were back training on 22 June.

We were the first county to take players off furlough and they have been back training for 4 weeks now - they are on top of the world. Whilst it has been a challenge, the collaboration of all staff and players has been appreciated. Whilst at times we had to calibrate what we were communicating, we feel as though letting employees know regularly the challenges, the solutions and our approach helped.

Having been so pre-emptive and having conversations with the bank, have you needed to go down CBILS route? 

No, we were comfortable, having received clarity on income distributions from the ECB,  near term that we had enough flexibility to not require going down the CBILS route, although we wouldn’t rule anything out. We have a very lean structure as a Club perhaps relative to other counties, due to a range of factors including our experience with managing floods. We also have a simplified operational structure, for what is a relatively straightforward business.
Cricket is run by the steering group, Sarah runs finance and David Hoskins runs the commercial side of the business. Having such a lean structure gives us more flexibility in times like these and allows us to react fast and assist the game. 

What about other stakeholders such as members – what was their reaction and how did you deal with it? 

All our members are shareholders as we are an Industrial and Provident Society. Membership income is a significant proportion of the Club’s income. 
Ordinarily, if there was no cricket being played the money would be handed back to members. In these unprecedented times the commercial team gave our existing members a choice as at this stage the Club were still unsure as to whether games would be behind closed doors or not. 
Our members could become an Executive 2020 member, giving them an innovative digital subscription with access to every game played at our ground this season - which are not being streamed on television. 

These members will also get priority tickets to any games which are not behind closed doors this year, as well as 25% off next year’s subscription. 
Executive 2020 members will be invited to an All Stars sports game next year. Each will see their names on special shirts produced, along with other gestures from the Club to show their thanks for continually supporting us through this challenging time. 

Around half of our membership has taken up this offer and the Club will be forever grateful for their support. 
Other options given to members were to roll over their membership to 2021, or have a full refund. We are pleased to see that only 6% of members asked for a refund reflecting an enormous amount of loyalty that exists at our Club.

How have you, the Board and the players used this time? 

There have been regular Zoom meetings taking place across the whole club. The management team have had virtual meetings 2-3 times a week, the cricket steering group meeting every Friday, and the Board have been meeting every 3-4 weeks. There have been at times weekly calls with the ECB.
This has ensured sustained and regular collaboration to help with our decision making. 

Under furlough rules, the Club could not mandate keeping players fit. Alex Gidman, Head Coach, created the ‘Rapids Relay’. This saw the County’s first team squad; women’s team and academy players volunteering to cover nearly 1,000 kilometres in seven days to raise money for Acorns Children’s Hospice. 

This was an excellent and inspiring idea to support a great charity. It brought the club together during the pandemic.

The Rapids Relay raised a phenomenal amount of money for the Charity. Not only that but the engagement of our members, players and the local community in the relay was extraordinary. On the Club’s twitter feed alone, we had 1.74m twitter hits purely relating to the Rapids Relay. 

I took part and ran one leg, which was a struggle to say the least (but once you have adjusted for height, I was running like a professional!!). 

The players morale, mental health and competitive nature were all supported by this initiative, which is of an upmost importance at this current time. We recognise that everybody is dealing with different problems. Our elite athletes are defined by how they perform in games to the public and if they can’t play a season or they’re not certain when the next season will be, they lose time in their career and morale is impacted. 

The Club created a super decked-out gym for all the players in the marquee for them to use prior to the cricket season returning in August. Furthermore, the ground staff have been working tirelessly to get the grounds ready for the season following the flood damage earlier this year. 

Not only has this boosted the Club and our players morale, but it has created opportunities. The ground has a hotel on site which can create a bio-secure bubble to host a team to play. With just 9 days’ notice, the Club were asked to host Pakistan, which was of crucial importance to the ECB and the whole game.  From record floods in March to hosting an International team in July during a national pandemic. That’s a great achievement by the staff at our Club.

As a Club we were investing time and resources into our growth before Covid, and the impact the pandemic and lockdown has had on the business has fine-tuned and streamlined our operations. We have lots of challenges to overcome, but we are confident we will get out of this stronger. We are already more collaborative, nimble and flexible. 

The season is due to start on 1 August. The impact and challenges we have faced since February have been as great as anything we have faced before.

We are confident we are ready for what lies ahead. 

We are ready to improve all that we do and support other teams if needs be. We are here to help the game. 

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