I choose a good day to meet David Harker, chief executive of Durham County Cricket Club. The previous evening, councillors have approved the club’s £45m revamp of the Riverside Complex in Chester-le-Street; a development which should secure its place as one of the England’s premier grounds.
Fittingly, it is a glorious spring day, the first really warm day of the year, and we are all shirt sleeves and sunglasses at the Riverside.
All we need to make it perfect, in my opinion, is an Ashes test match, an Aussie middle order collapse, and 20,000 fans in attendance to enjoy an historic England victory.
Sadly, Riverside won’t be hosting an Ashes test this season, having lost the honour, controversially, to Cardiff.
It will, however, host an England v Australia one day international (ODI) and the England v West Indies test match in May; an attractive follow up toEngland’s winter tour of the Caribbean.
Audiences here are growing rapidly (by 23% last year) and more than 150,000 people are expected this year to enjoy the test match, the ODI, the explosive Twenty20 Cup series and the LV County Championship, as Durham aim to retain their status as the top professional county in England and Wales.
This is a highly ambitious club; its hunger on the field matched by the senior management team’s drive to secure the ground’s place among the world’s best.
The ambitious redevelopment of the ground, newly approved by Chester-le-Street Council subject to further application to the Secretary of State for Communities, will bring a 150-bed hotel, new conference and banqueting facilities, and – crucially for its future as a top-flight test match venue – permanent seating for 20,000.
There will also be permanent floodlights (their height now scaled down to appease objectors) and two giant replay screens.
But will the work over the next two to three years guarantee Riverside’s place in the top flight in the face of growing competition, not only from the established names of Lord’s, The Oval and the like, but also from new names such as the Rose Bowl in Southampton and the big-hitting Sophia Gardens in Cardiff? “This development is essential if we are to continue to stage international cricket,” asserts David Harker, adding that full regional support is also crucial.
“We will create a superb venue, and we also have to work as a region to value these events’ economic value to the whole of the North East.
“The millions of pounds this club can bring to the region far outweigh the parochial concerns of a few about the development work and the traffic issues that come with big matches.
“I hope that the region as a whole can take a longer-term view.
This isn’t just a cricket question; we are the biggest private sector employer in Chester-le-Street and we need these events to sustain our growth for the whole region.
“One North East and Durham County Council have been generally supportive [One North East approved £715,000 towards the £45m revamp at Riverside] and our continued success impacts on the regional image and on the regional economy.” The club’s history is long and proud.
Established in 1882, Durham were Minor Counties Champions a record-equalling nine times between 1900 and 1984.
First-class status was awarded in 1991, but until 1994the club had no proper home ground, despite the likes of Ian Botham, David Graveney, Wayne Larkins, Paul Parker, Geoff Cook, Dean Jones and Simon Hughes on the playing staff.
The Riverside - renowned as one of the most picturesque grounds in the country - has been home since 1995.
It has been improved much over the years and now has a successful bistro, conference and hospitality facilities, the Playing for Success Learning Centre and a Media and Education Centre.
Host to one-day internationals since 1999, the ground hosted its first test match - England v Zimbabwe - in 2003 and it is now a world-renowned sporting venue; unlike, notably, Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens, which - incredibly - remains a test match virgin until it kicks off the Ashes series in July.
It is also a music venue (its musical offerings include Sugarbabes and James Morrison this summer) though these events are not, David Harker says, nearly as lucrative as you might suppose because of their massive overheads.
They do, however, raise profile, bring revenue to the region and showcase Riverside’s hospitality facilities to a different audience.
Prestigious international cricket matches are, however, crucial to the commercial growth of the club, and the loss of the July Ashes test match to Cardiff was a blow.
“When we bid for it, you were talking about £600,000 maximum to bid for a match like that,” says David. “We put in a bid for £1m and we thought that would break the mould. But Cardiff were supported by the Welsh Assembly and put in a bid for £3m. How could we compete with that? “We had come up the hard way and earned our spurs and they hadn’t - still haven’t - staged a test match. But you have to move on, and our response has been to concentrate our minds on the development of the stadium.” On the field also, the club has progressed, and the team’s success boosts its commercial prospects.
Only 17 years a first-class county, Durham enjoyed its most successful season to date in 2008, claiming the LV County Championship, reaching the semi-final of The Friends Provident Trophy and the Twenty20 Cup and finishing third in the NatWest Pro40 Division One.
The club’s international credentials are also sound; established England names Steve Harmison and Paul Collingwood are Durham squad members, though their England contracts mean they are rarely available for their club.
England-capped players Liam Plunkett and Phil Mustard are also Riverside based and the club has also now secured Australian ODI and Twenty20 opening batsman David Warner as its overseas player for the 2009 Twenty20 Cup competition.
High-profile players bring kudos and attract other good players while, says David Harker, having players with international commitments mean the club’s talent is boosted further because you can’t depend on their presence.
“We have to have a bigger squad to cope with it. As a young player, you want to be in a strong side and that’s what we provide,” he adds. And what of the pressures on England players these days, pressures that are felt keenly by Harmison, for one example, who is known not to enjoy long overseas tours.
“In the old days there was not as much cricket or as much media scrutiny,” says David.
“It’s a much more intense sport and the interest in the England players now is almost unrelenting. It’s a demanding job for the players, as is running a club like this. People think we spend our summers here watching cricket and the winters twiddling our thumbs.
Obviously, it isn’t quite like that.” So what is it like, the business of sport? What skills does a top-flight, ambitious club’s chief executive require? “You need business skills first, but empathy for the sport also,” he says.
“In cricket, there’s an element of being a temporary custodian of a very special game. It’s all about the people here.
The job of any chief executive is to provide an environment where there is a shared vision and values and we expect a level of commitment that means we have to give a bit back at other times.
The culture of the business is informal, friendly, respectful and progressive.” As a business, as well as on the field, this is an ambitious and exciting club, and in a major coup, Emirates airlines has recently been announced as Durham’s Twenty20 Cup sponsor.
Last season, Northern Rock sponsored the entire club, but after the nationalised bank was unable to renew its contract, David and his senior team opted to spread any future risk by separating the club’s sponsorship deals into packages.
Hence Ebac, the Bishop Aucklandbased maker of de-humidifiers, is now proud sponsor of the Friends Provident Trophy, while another backer (unannounced at the time of writing) has been secured for the NatWest Pro40 league.
“Losing Northern Rock made us think differently about our sponsorship,” David explains.
“Northern Rock took a genuine interest in the success of the club and we would not have achieved what we have without that. But they supported us because we were a North East club, and we have to be more than that to attract other sponsors. Being county champions helps of course.”
Sport is a fickle business, however, and there’s not a lot of difference between the top and the bottom teams in Division One. The club invests in its Academy in the knowledge that success on the field will encourage commercial success. One thing you can be sure of in sport, David says, with a rueful smile, is that you can never be sure of anything.
“People do like to be associated with successful organisations, however, and we know that makes the commercial side easier for us. Our profile is higher when we are doing well on the field.”
David came to Durham in 1990, an auditor on secondment from Price Waterhouse, as was, to develop the club’s business plan to become a first class county. It was fascinating work and, although he had only what he calls ‘a passing interest’ in the game, he became hooked on the club and applied for the chief executive’s post.
“I thought I’d be here three to five years and then go back to my career,” he says, “but it’s continued to be interesting and varied. Our values are very much to the fore here. The place is professional – and friendly.” He also has to accommodate a varied audience that includes men in fancy dress for whom the quality of the beer on offer is as important as the quality of the game, plus families who require a less, shall we say, ‘lively’ atmosphere.
There’s plenty of room for all here, he says, having created family areas and built up a successful catering and corporate hospitality business.
In a business of multiple revenue streams, gate receipts, catering and corporate hospitality are significant income generators, as are sponsorship, the 4,500 members and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
And what of the future of English cricket and the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between Twenty20 and the traditional long game? The game is still, he says, not quite clear about what it wants to be.
“There’s still this feeling that Twenty20 is somehow not quite cricket, but it stands on its own two feet as an event in its own right.
We also need a support strategy for test cricket and the traditions of the game.
The two do not have to be mutually exclusive.” One of the most noticeable things about David Harker, if you keep your eye on the media, is how modern his approach is; how open he is to opportunity, whatever form of the game it takes.
So, when it looked as if Indian Premier League (IPL) matches might switch to England (they went to South Africa) as a result of security concerns in India, he was quick to declare Riverside a potential venue.
Ditto the potential for Australia to play Pakistan in England next year because of security issues in Pakistan.
“This is a business like any other. It’s about commercial generation, though it’s unique because of the variety of income streams. We are open to new opportunities.
“As long as we plan creatively, as we have in the past, there is no reason why we won’t secure our name internationally. Lords is known for its history, we are known for being the most welcoming and friendly venue in the country. Our strategy is about great service, great facilities and great customer care.
“We also have a great strength in the local audience. Club cricket is very well established and vibrant in the North East. There is a love and pride and tradition of cricket in the region and this is of enormous value to this club.”