Amar Singh, head of content and comms at MKTG Sport + Entertainment, takes a closer look at the Yorkshire County Cricket Club race crisis and why sponsors have their own lessons to learn about the sorry situation.
If there is one community that English cricket simply cannot afford to fail, it’s the South Asian community.
The ECB (English Cricket Board) estimates that there are at least one million South Asian cricket fans across England and Wales, whilst South Asians make up a third of the recreational playing base.
Put simply, the game would collapse without the investment that comes from British Asians at every level of the pyramid - from buying tickets to Test matches to the volunteers coaching kids at the weekend and everything in between.
In 2018 the ECB released an action plan entitled ‘Engaging South Asian Communities’ which acknowledged past failings in this area and set in motion an 11-point action plan around creating opportunities in the game, removing barriers and strengthening relationships with the community.
This year, the ECB reported record numbers for participation and a host of milestones being hit across the action plan including 1,000 South Asian women trained to deliver All Stars and Dynamos Cricket, often in inner-city areas, and funding for 2,750 people from ethnically diverse backgrounds to become accredited cricket coaches.
Unquestionably, progress has been made.
Yet, the claims of ‘deep-rooted institutionalized’ racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club (the most successful domestic team in English cricketing history) by former professional cricketer Azeem Rafiq and at least two other unnamed Asian players - has rocked the game.
Furthermore, the club’s total failure to discipline anyone despite admitting that Rafiq had been the victim of racial harassment and bullying as part of a report that also ruled that Rafiq being called a 'P**i' was 'banter’, has led to widespread outrage.
The Yorkshire racism crisis is, therefore, not just a huge setback for the ECB’s strategy, but potentially an existential threat to the fabric of the English game.
Many seasoned followers of English cricket might not have been surprised that Yorkshire CCC would end up death spiraling like this amidst a self-induced race crisis.
Described by departing chairman Roger Hutton last week as possessing “a culture that refuses to accept change,” it is a sporting body that has needed a hard reset for many years - and a reckoning with its past.
Despite the county of Yorkshire becoming more ethnically diverse in the 21st century, with the biggest concentration of South Asian migrants outside of London settling mainly in the districts of Bradford, Kirklees and Calderdale, the club remained stubbornly insular.
Yorkshire refused to select Asian players for decades and failed to acknowledge competitions such as the Asian-run Quaid-e-Azam Cricket League, which hundreds of cricketers still compete in, in the region each Summer.
It was in 1992 that Yorkshire fielded its first non-white cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, the Indian prodigy who would go on to become one of the game’s greats.
However, Tendulkar was born in Bombay, not Bradford, and it was not until 2004 when Ajmal Shahzad became the first British-born Asian to play for the county.
This is a club that has struggled to move with the times and has had a tense relationship with the South Asian community, despite the richness of talent and passion for the game on its very doorstep.
For Yorkshire CCC’s commercial partners, that effectively tore up their contracts with the club last week to the tune of a reported £3m, there are lessons to be learned.
Due diligence on the club’s patchy record on diversity and race equality might have led to some robust questions on how the sporting body is moving forward before entering a partnership like this.
Nike canceled a four-year kit supply deal with the club that was signed just in March - five months after Rafeeq’s claims were made and the investigation began.
For an organization that has created some of the most inspiring campaigns around equality and sport with huge investments committed to “fostering an inclusive culture and breaking down barriers for athletes around the world” an internal post mortem on the Yorkshire partnership and withdrawal might be needed.
Consumers today demand to know what companies stand for and what they are doing to make the world a better place.
By extension, the rights holders brands align with must also have values that chime with theirs, and if historical issues are a concern, they should seek concrete assurances that they have a clear strategy to address them.
Cricket’s status as the world’s second most popular sport is unchallenged - and its appeal to sponsors will remain high.
Yet, the Yorkshire CCC crisis shows how complacency on diversity and equality can lead to failure.
The failure of leadership inadequately grasping the importance of inclusivity and the values of your partners.
The failure to anticipate how such a lack of risible action would be received by the media and fans and, most importantly, the failure to support Azeem Rafiq, whose bravery deserves to be lauded and words must be heeded at the very top of the English game.