From Groupie to Godfather - Jane Cable interviews Rod Bransgrove

Dec 21 2007

Rod-Trophy-2005

FROM GROUPIE TO GODFATHER

Jane Cable interviews Rod Bransgrove, The Rose Bowl’s Chairman and Chief Executive.

It would sound far too sycophantic to say that since I’ve been working with The Rose Bowl, this was the interview I’ve most wanted to do. So I won’t. Neither will I tell you that Rod Bransgrove is one of the most interesting cricket people I’ve ever met. I’ll leave you to form your own judgment – after all, it seems that everyone has a strong opinion on the man who has taken Hampshire Cricket from the brink of disaster to the exciting position we’re in today.

I felt it was important, first, to understand where Rod’s cricketing roots come from. Like many cricket fans, the enthusiasm was passed from father to son: in Rod’s case, sitting at The Oval watching the likes of Mickey Stewart and Peter May in the company of his Dad, a “walking Wisden”. Rod himself was a “reasonably handy” school cricketer, but gave up playing after some unsuccessful Surrey trails. It was only when he moved south, first to Sussex and then to Hampshire, that he started to play again. He helped to form a club called The Staggerers, which was made up of life long cricket enthusiasts, occasionally complemented by the odd professional player from Hampshire County Cricket Club.

Having met some of the players, Rod started to follow the County and became a self-confessed cricket groupie, going to away matches and enjoying a few beers with the team afterwards. “I just got very close to the game,” he explains. Which was no doubt how he found himself in pole position to help the Club when it ran into trouble in 2000. He had never before considered becoming involved in the administration of cricket, being fully occupied with his own businesses. “It was very much an accident. Hampshire needed somebody and I just happened to be there.”

I had always thought that The Rose Bowl was Rod’s vision, but he quickly corrects me. Plans to move from Northlands Road were already well underway, and it was the attempted realisation of these plans that had caused Hampshire’s financial problems. Encouraged by funding partners Sport England, the part time voluntary committee running the Club had stretched themselves to employ prestigious architect Sir Michael Hopkins and sometime during the process eyes were taken off the budgetary ball. The result was a beautiful pavilion – but a financial nightmare.

Indeed, at the point Rod stepped in (reputedly ignoring the advice of an insolvency practitioner), it seemed likely the Club wouldn’t be playing first class cricket in 2001,
which put its very survival into doubt. To make sure the Club was on a firm financial footing and to ensure a businesslike approach to its future, The Rose Bowl plc was formed. “We can say that everyone agreed” says Rod, “but at the time there weren’t that many options. I’ve always been mindful of that; I always try and remind myself that, although everyone was very supportive at the time, they didn’t really have much choice so I am constantly under pressure to prove that I’ve done the right thing.”

Once Rod took over, he soon realised the financial black hole was bigger than he’d supposed. It was a new situation for him, because he had set up his other businesses from scratch.  Here, however, he had to deal with the legacy of an international scale ground without the financial resources to match – or, at that time, international recognition from the ECB. But he has stuck with it, and has taken the club forward.

I was surprised to learn that, despite his other business interests, Rod is more or less full time at The Rose Bowl and seems pretty hands on. “This has dominated my life for the last seven years or so. This is my job – and it’s definitely the hardest one I’ve ever done.” He is both Chairman and Chief Executive of the plc, which he recognises isn’t ideal. But as the infrastructure of the company improves and he forms a strong executive around him, he hopes that will change over the next year or so.

The business of cricket has always fascinated me. Probably a sad indictment on my personality, or maybe the fact that when I’m not writing about cricket I’m a Chartered Accountant, but understanding how the money-go-round works in this great game has always seemed important. There is much muttering in some quarters about the management of the game being too much influenced by the money men, but at the end of the day, the First Class Counties are sizeable businesses.

At the time Rod and I sat down to talk, he was in the middle of negotiating a critical part of Rose Bowl plc’s finances, the staging agreement with the ECB. “It will be broadly the same as everyone else’s. It will now be up to us to make a competitive pitch when the tender documents arrive for each game. We have certain advantages here of course, with a 25,000 capacity. Only The Oval can match that from public sales.”

I was intrigued to know how this tendering process works. Rod explained that it is on the basis of a ‘balanced scorecard’ that takes into account the quality of the facilities (whether or not you have floodlights or covered seats, how good the wickets are etc) and the financial considerations – in other words, how much you’re prepared to pay to stage the game. And then there’s geographical spread and other factors. “Up until now, 50% of the score has been driven by the fee – and I won’t comment about any of the recent examples. In the next wave of games I think that’s going to be tempered slightly so that facilities come out on top. That will help us here, but we’ll still have to decide how much we’re prepared to pay to stage, for example, England v India in 2011, which is a game I’d really like to have here.”

So in simplistic terms, the Clubs able to stage international games pay the ECB for the privilege, and then the ECB distributes money back to all eighteen First Class Counties. Rod has made proposals to change this though; he believes that the money raised from international games should be ring fenced and passed back to the Counties with lesser facilities for the express purpose of maintaining their grounds, because they won’t have the resource to do it otherwise. At the moment he feels that the Counties are too financially competitive with each other when, for the good of the game as a whole, the competition in cricket should be kept on the pitch.

Despite radical views like this, and his past criticisms of the ECB, Rod now believes there is an administration in place at the top of cricket, which is moving in the right direction. Is this because of the changes made post Schofield? “I think it was appropriate that the ECB took some outside advice. Although by the time they started to implement some of the proposals many of the problems, which arose from the previous incumbent having too strong a power base, had disappeared anyway.” Rod is unwilling to knock Duncan Fletcher, however. “Everyone I’ve spoken to in the game will say, almost without exception, that he was a brilliant coach.”

Although the international game is key to the future of The Rose Bowl, Rod feels that county cricket has been somewhat disenfranchised by its importance. A case in point is Twenty20 and Rod believes the national sides have hijacked this format, when it should have been left as the jewel in the crown of the domestic game. By all means play it internationally, but let the competition be between the best clubs from around the world, with a worldwide television audience. And make sure the big stars of the game are available to play for their clubs in the competition.

So does being seen solely as a breeding ground for future England players also disenfranchise county cricket? Rod considers this to be a fait accompli, even if it is a shame. However the distribution of funds from the ECB, including broadcast monies, relates in part to a club’s potential for developing Test Match cricketers so is it important. It’s a conundrum, because financially, the counties themselves are dependent on promoting the one day formats to survive commercially. In particular Twenty20 – and building on that, the forty over games. “There’s a big responsibility on us to play forty over cricket with the same verve and enthusiasm as we play Twenty20” says Rod. “We don’t do too badly here from county cricket – we still get a couple of thousand people to the first day of a County Championship match, which is small in the context of the game, but large by comparison with some other Counties. But at the end of the day, championship cricket is not going to attract the same type of audiences as the one day offerings.”

The Rose Bowl cannot fund its activities from cricket alone. In order to improve facilities and broaden its commercial base, the company is looking to spend £40m – which is an awful lot of money to raise. The negotiations with traditional financiers such as the banks are complete, but there is £2-3m left to find. This is likely to be raised through debentures and sponsorship deals and Rod feels very comfortable the project will be completed.

Some of the work will also be funded through the tender process for the hotel. The successful bidder will be expected to pay for the new road and exit to the south of the ground, as well as providing the media centre within its hotel facilities. The whole construction project will be managed by Drivers Jonas who masterminded the recent work at The Oval, and so are used to fitting in with the demands of the cricket season.

So given that in a few year’s time The Rose Bowl will be the finest cricket ground in the country, what will be Rod’s next challenge be? He is adamant that there won’t be one. He’s having a suite built into one of the new stands, where he hopes to enjoy his retirement watching some great cricket, both domestic and international. But such is his enthusiasm I find it very hard to believe he will not have some ongoing professional involvement with Hampshire Cricket. Or maybe I just don’t want to imagine the County without its committed and sometimes controversial godfather.

Rod Bransgrove holding the C&G Trophy at Lord's in 2005

Rod-CG-Trophy2005


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