Ahead of Vitality Blast Finals Day the ECB's Managing Director of County Cricket, Neil Snowball, has looked back on a successful 20th anniversary competition both on and of the field.
Over the years, Vitality Blast Finals Day at Edgbaston has become one of the highlights of the sporting calendar.
This will be the 20th edition of Finals Day and it’s been one of the great privileges of my time in cricket to have been able to witness this showpiece event and to see the enthusiasm and passion of the thousands of county cricket fans who flock to Birmingham for this unique event every year.
The Vitality Blast is a short-format competition unlike any other, partly due to age old county rivalries that play out every year across the country.
One of the most celebrated rivalries is, of course, between Lancashire and Yorkshire and it is fitting that this iconic local derby will feature in Saturday’s first Semi-Final.
Over the years, all 18 First Class Counties have established their own rich history in a competition that continues to attract top players from across the world and also provide a stage for homegrown players to develop their skills.
The overall quality has stepped up another level this year, not just on the back of overseas stars such as Rashid Khan, Carlos Brathwaite, Shan Masood, Chris Lynn, Andrew Tye and Naveen-ul-Haq but also the impressive displays by homegrown players including Adam Hose, James Vince, Richard Gleeson, George Scrimshaw, Rehan Ahmed and Will Jacks.
There has been some great cricket over the past seven weeks, and it is important to recognise that one of the key reasons has been the high-quality pitches produced by ground staff up and down the country.
They are some of the unsung heroes of the game and their hard work and expertise ensures the players can provide the entertainment and skill that makes the Vitality Blast such a great competition.
That has been proven in the statistics for this summer with more 200-plus scores than ever before – the total of 38 beat the previous best of 33 in 2018 – highlighted by Somerset’s record-breaking 265 for five in their home quarter-final.
The percentage of sixes (23.4%) and boundaries (58.6%) per runs is the highest ever and there has been help for the bowlers too with 10 five-wicket hauls (up on three last summer) and an even mix of spin and pace amongst the top wicket takers and lowest economy rates.
Fans up and down the country have been drawn to the entertainment that has been on offer, with the First Class Counties selling more tickets to the competition per day than any other season.
Last week’s quarter finals attracted a combined 42,000 spectators – the most ever for the last-eight stage.
After the impact of Covid and the restrictions that were in place for two summers, in addition to the changing consumer habits that has impacted other sports and entertainment, it has been heartening to see crowds returning up and down the country.
Five counties enjoyed record attendances across the group stage – Birmingham Bears, Somerset, Hampshire Hawks, Worcestershire Rapids and Leicestershire Foxes - while Emirates Old Trafford enjoyed its second-highest average attendance for the competition.
That has helped to ensure that cricket remains on track to welcome more fans into our stadiums for men’s and women’s domestic and international cricket in a single summer than ever before (excluding global events).
The Vitality Blast is central to ambitions to push the game forward and this summer millions of fans have attended the competition or watched and listened to it via Sky Sports Cricket, BBC Local Radio stations, the First-Class County live streams and the ECB App and website.
We are undergoing research to further understand the changing consumer habits and how we can develop the Vitality Blast’s offer to fans.
What is certain is that there has never been more ways to watch and follow the Vitality Blast, whether it is at venue or across the various digital platforms, and we’re committed to driving progress and increasing the reach of a competition that has become much loved since its inception in 2003.
This week’s announcement of the extended partnership with Sky Sports, until 2028, underlines that ambition.
The partnership is significant because it will help us to provide a greater profile for Vitality Blast than ever before.
The deal will ensure at least 50% more group games are broadcast by Sky each season with one game in each round to be live-streamed for free on Sky Sports Cricket YouTube.
Importantly, it will also ensure the counties can continue to stream every group game on their own platforms. The hard work and innovation the counties have put into their streaming service is a testament to the expertise within our game and, significantly, has bought more fans closer to cricket.
It is also exciting that this new deal has a provision for a brand-new weekly Vitality Blast highlights show to be broadcast on terrestrial television.
A deal like this re-iterates the value and importance that is placed on the Vitality Blast and reflects that loyalty and passion fans have for it.
That will be on full display this weekend at Edgbaston and I would like to congratulate, and wish all the best, to the four semi-finalists – Hampshire Hawks, Lancashire Lightning, Somerset and Yorkshire Vikings – on reaching one of the best days in the sporting calendar.