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cricket:image:1341337 [900x506] (Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

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Richard Gould, the ECB's chief executive, says there is a "strong consensus" within English cricket that the Hundred should be opened up to private investment and that the owners of American and British sports teams, as well as IPL franchises, have made their interest clear.

The ECB has consulted with the first-class counties since the end of the Hundred's third season in August, discussing the ownership model of the competition's eight clubs which each comprise a men's and women's team. Several options have been tabled, with host counties likely to be given equity stakes in the teams that play at their home venue.

Counties would then be free to sell those stakes on to interested investors, or retain them if they choose. The governing body would retain ownership of the competition as a whole, which is reportedly valued at over £1 billion, but could sell its own stake in the teams.

Discussions will continue but Gould's comments were the clearest indication yet that private investment is imminent. "The future of the Hundred is very strong in terms of ticket sales, broadcast interest, and franchise interest now in terms of third-party investors who are interested in it," he said at an event launching the 2024 season at The Oval.

"We're having really good discussions with the game. There is a strong consensus that we would like to see private investment come into the Hundred. There's a very strong consensus that that should be through investment into the teams rather than the central competition, and now we're working through the options of what that could potentially look like, in terms of how control, revenue and capital is shared."

Gould does not expect English cricket to follow South Africa's lead in selling all eight Hundred teams to IPL team owners. "Our interest won't just be with IPL franchises," he said. "We have got a lot of interested sports owners from the [United] States and from this country. So we'll be looking at all those options."

The ECB initially told counties it intended to confirm changes by the end of May and implement them in time for the 2025 season, but has since cooled on that timeframe. "We're not putting huge deadlines on it," Gould said, with the consensus over the broad principles around the Hundred's future not yet reflected in the detail.

"The game has suffered from divisions over the last five or six years, and we would rather take a bit of time in order to get to the conclusions that we think the game is seeking, rather than rush people," Gould said. "We can, frankly, create more value with a game that is operating as one."

The ECB are still resigned to the fact that the BCCI will not grant active men's players No-Objection Certificates to feature in overseas short-form leagues. "It's not something that we are working into our proceedings," Gould said. "I can see why: they [the BCCI] have got a dominant global position there, and they want to try and make sure that they can retain that.

"Indian broadcast money generally follows Indian players… the BCCI and the IPL have just said, 'No, we want the IPL to be the No. 1 global tournament and in order to do that, we need to make sure that we rely on our strengths which is the size of our market and the quality of our players'. That may change at some point… but we are not basing any of our models on that, at this point."

Some smaller counties have raised concerns that proposed ownership models may further entrench the chasm between them and the biggest clubs, but Gould denounced the idea that the ECB's management are hoping to kill some counties off by stealth as "a totally mad conspiracy" theory.

"I've been in the game 20-odd years and that conversation has always been around, but we're the one professional sport that hasn't lost a club [in England] and we've been going 140-odd years. Look at rugby and football. We've done extremely well as a sport to maintain that 100% record, and that's where our intent lies.

"The depth of our talent pool, both in terms of men and women, is our superpower at the moment... having more teams and more players and more depth to our talent pool is ideal. It's where we want to be. It increases competition. It provides more opportunity for talent to come through. I don't see any backward step in terms of 18 first-class counties."

"But we also need to make sure that clubs do not feel restricted by that, so that we can make sure that [counties] that are particularly good at delivering talent or crowds through the doors… we need to make sure that they're celebrated too. We can't run it all at a median denominator. We have to let clubs and counties fly."