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Cricket news - Keen on improvement, Leicestershire aim to leap ahead
"It's actually sort of my dream job, coming home to Leicester, driving into the ground that I used to pass every Sunday morning going to my swimming lessons. It is going to be a challenge but I'm really pleased to be back."
Karen Rothery takes over as Leicestershire's new CEO on 23rd April with a tough act to follow. After delivering steady financial improvement and progress in a number of other areas, former CEO Wasim Khan, who was regarded by the ECB as one of the brightest administrative talents in England, has left the club to become the Managing Director of the Pakistan Cricket Board. For now, he has been lost to the English game but there are hopes he will return, potentially as a future CEO of the ECB.
However, despite the good work that Khan has done at Leicestershire over the past five years, the club's financial health is still a work in progress.
Rothery's CV is impressive and according to Chairman Paul Haywood, she was the outstanding candidate interviewed for the role. She has held two previous CEO positions in sport at British Universities College Sports (BUCS) and Surrey Sport Park at The University of Surrey. She has been appointed by the club with a focus of driving forward the commercial side of things at Leicestershire but as well as her business acumen, she is also a cricket nut. Her husband plays, she volunteers at their local club and she's travelled round the world watching the game. "It's a sport I love to be involved with," she says.
When Rothery begins in two weeks, she will become just the second female CEO in county cricket, alongside Notts' Lisa Pursehouse, and she is under no illusion as to the job on her hands. As one of the non-Test match counties, Leicestershire's financial position needs constant work with balancing success on the pitch and success off it a "challenge". The county made a small operating loss of 157,000 pounds during the last financial year - after three years of profits - and a large part of their income comes from the ECB, a model which the club remain focused on changing.
"Credit has to go to Wasim and his management team for the financial progress they've made," Rothery says. "I was at the AGM last week and there's been a small loss in the last financial year. But we have to really focus on our commercial partnerships. It's about really driving that financial sustainability, getting our long-term debt down through creating some commercial revenue and profit on that activity."
Reports in recent days have suggested Leicestershire are in discussions with the ECB about support for a 1.3 million pounds debt which has to be paid this year although, compared to other counties, their overall debt level is relatively low. The issue is a reminder, however, that for the non-Test match grounds, financial stability is often a day-to-day struggle where difficult decisions have to be made.
County cricket is a game of the haves and have nots and Rothery's focus on building up the commercial side of things is designed to move Leicestershire a little more towards the haves.
"The first-class counties who don't host international matches are at a disadvantage from the others and we are a small ground here," Rothery says. "In long-term growth terms, we have got a challenge on our hands which is different from the other first-class counties.
"I am optimistic actually. We have got a very strong board member now who is focusing on the finance side. Counties like us who can't attract those major crowds on match-day because we simply don't have those high profile matches, it's so important that we drive as much commercial revenue and create an environment where people want to pay us money to come and do stuff here.
"It's not going to be easy as it isn't for many clubs like us but there is potential. For this year, from what I've seen so far, things look like they are under control in financial terms."
A key focus will be on women's and girl's cricket as well as on using Grace Road far more for other activities in order to increase revenue. "We already have a very strong community set-up here at Leicestershire and I am very keen on making sure that we get more people to the ground for cricket and not cricket," Rothery adds. "We've got a lovely community facility here, literally in the heart of the community in Leicester, and there is lots more that we can do with it.
"I am quietly quite confident that we can start to raise our profile in the business world here in Leicestershire. That's one of the key things. Attracting business partners and sponsors who want to make an impact. Raising our profile as a place to do business, somewhere where everybody is welcomed and we are inclusive is a really important part of our personality here. Those are the things that are real opportunities."
Inclusivity is an area where, under Khan's leadership, Leicestershire made great progress, particularly in reaching out to the local South Asian population. More than a third of the population of Leicester is of South Asian descent and engagement with that part of the community remains a priority for Rothery and the club, particularly given the recent launch of the ECB's South Asian Action Plan aimed at addressing the relative lack of engagement from that community with the professional game.
"It's massively important that we try and engage on their terms and within their culture," she says. "We are really well placed to do that. Where we are here in Aylestone is very close to the city centre where most of that population resides and we are very easy to access. I want us to access the business side of that as well. There's some really entrepreneurial business based in Leicester and I want them to feel like Grace Road is their home too."
Of course, the cricketing side of things remains the club's bread and butter and under head coach Paul Nixon, who took over at the start of the last campaign, the squad made progress in 2018, winning five Championship matches in all. Their white-ball cricket had less to write home about.
However, the playing staff has reduced in size this term - partly due to financial reasons - and they have lost two key bowlers in Zak Chappell to Nottinghamshire and Ben Raine to Durham. That should, at least, present more opportunities for academy players, something Rothery says the club is very keen on, and they do still have a trump card up their sleeve in the form of Pakistan fast-bowler Mohammad Abbas who took 50 wickets in ten Championship matches last season.
Given the departures, and the fact that Leicestershire were starting from a low base when Nixon took over, having failed to win a Championship match in 2017, Rothery and the club's management understand that things on the pitch remain a work in progress. Further collective improvement is the target this season. "Paul Nixon says it really well," Rothery says. "We are a county that needs to continue to make progress. Whilst everyone will be going for those top three promotion slots - and we'd love to be there - for us progress on the pitch is going to be the main intention for this season. I think we are well placed to do that.
"We've had two good warm-up matches in the last week which we've won quite nicely. That will have given the boys some confidence and I think it's about progress this season and we will see where we end up at the end."
With The Hundred set to begin next year, the future of counties such as Leicestershire, who are not hosting one of the eight teams, is uncertain even if Rothery welcomes the annual 1.3 million pound payment each county will get. Nevertheless, over time, some fear that the non-host grounds will become little more than feeder clubs for the biggest eight counties or, in a worst case scenario, will cease to play county cricket at all. There is likely to be a short-term impact on Leicestershire with Nixon hoping to be involved as a coach in some capacity and a number of players who want to put their name in the auction.
Given the uncertainly, are Leicestershire still determined to be a full-time county in the future? "Yes, of course," Rothery says. "We have a loyal fan base and they need to get their fix of county cricket."
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