Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sustaining Cricket in Global Market

As dust settles on the stunning day in Cricket World Cup 2007 in Caribbean, many things are becoming quite clear. The day unfolded to spectacular upset wins – teams of part time players defeating teams comprised of full time players with obscene amount of pay checks and mind boggling sponsorship windfalls.

To understand the context of World Cup and Cricket one needs to understand the peculiar financial structure of this sport in the global market. The sport is essentially sustained by more than 90% of money effectively coming from Indian Media and Advertising market. In India, Cricket is the only game available for indigenous companies and MNCs alike to sponsor and advertise with any tangible ROI. Cricket has essentially crowded out all other sports in India and hence garners more than 90% of media budget of businesses in India. Socially too, apart from Bollywood movies, Cricket is the single most dominant theme which unites Indians of totally diverse background.

The way Cricket is played globally, it is popular in former British colonies. In the first half of the last century it was England and Australian teams which dominated while Sub Continent teams were slowly catching up. In the later half of that century, it was gradual rise of teams from Sub Continent (first India, Pakistan, then joined by Sri Lanka and lately by Bangladesh). Australians continued to retain and strengthen their sports standing in Cricket while it declined lot for England. International Cricket Organization started quadrennial World Cup in 70s with the participation of 10 top tier teams (Caribbean countries represented as West Indies team, S. Africa, Zimbabwe, England, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Australia and down under New Zealand) and 6 minnows, countries where the game is still developing with no full time cricket players.

Getting back to the stunner day in Cricket World Cup 2007, what happened is minnow Ireland defeated Pakistan, effectively shut out Pakistan from this World Cup and Bangladesh defeated tournament favorite Indians in their first match. These and other matches earlier vindicate in a way the decision of ICC to include these second tier teams in the World Cup to make it more participatory. Stunning results like today effectively nullifies arguments from purist fan of Cricket to limit the WC participation to only top tier countries. This much is clear from these early matches – minnows bring more to the table than possible compromises in having too one sided matches.

The larger issue is as someone wrote on the site ''; money men at ICC will not be happy with these results. Think about Pakistani market of 165 million no longer watching TV as their team is most likely out of this WC. Imagine that happening to India and the whole financial edifice of ICC and WC will collapse soon.

Trying to base foundations of Cricket on expected discipline of Indian and Pakistani teams in producing victories is way too much risky for any business model to depend on. It is decades that these teams have shown the tendency of unpredictability unlike generally consistent pattern of Australia (ironically where the financial health of Cricket is not so good). Granted, unpredictability is the greatness of Cricket. But the upset victories are sensational and good for the sport in short term only. In the long term it clearly demonstrates inabilities of 'powers be of Cricket' to detect and nurture where the good game lies or at least how the good game gets generated. There is a business reason why the concept of ‘seeded player or team’ exist. It is like how one expects stable and predictable quarterly results from publicly traded mature companies. The whole trick of contemporary sports is to have reasonable predictability mixed with some uncertainty so that it does not become monotonous. But at no point the organizers want to be in a situation where one never knows which team will win on any given day. World Cup Soccer is something which comes nearest to this balance of certainty and unpredictability needed at global level for a sport to succeed and sustain commercially. In other words, not far too long a sport can be sustained if teams from its biggest market continue to loose. There is an intrinsic relationship between winning streaks of a team and popularity of that sport in the home area of that team. It is human nature (howsoever we keep on preaching that we should devour great game regardless of team) that fans shell out money only when they see their teams winning.

May be ICC (read India) should fund stadiums dedicated to Cricket in these minnow countries so Cricket flourishes in these countries in a sustainable manner and is not dependent on part timers. For example, one of the minnows in this World Cup – Bermuda, does not have any stadium worth notice where a team can play international standard Cricket game. Well, it could be also great foreign policy for India to back and finance stadiums in these countries.

Also for a huge country like India to keep the media interests fully intact for longer period, ICC should allow at least 4 Indian teams in the World Cup. It is a Billion plus country and what minnows show is you essentially need 11 players to show up on the pitch to pull off a spectacular result. Do we think Jharkand (a newly minted small state in Indian Republic) team will not be able to pull of one such upset victory? Sure it can. Hence more number of teams from India would make sense. Soccer World Cup entertains participation of 4 different teams from UK geographical region - Ireland, Scotland, Welsh and England.

There are certain sports which are succeeding globally more than others. Soccer is clearly one such and business soundness of Soccer is probably stronger than another financially sound sport – Olympics. Formula One Racing, NFL and Base Ball come to mind as some other sports well managed. It is sad that a career politician like Sharad Pawar finds BCCI and ICC president posts as politically more lucrative than as managerial challenges of sports organization. Pawar does not have any proven track record in managing a global sports or global business. We need business leaders at the helms of BCCI and ICC (not necessarily compromised businessman Dalmia who has been past president). Cricket Management should not be a ground for failed politicians to resurrect their political relevance on the cattails of Cricket popularity. The danger lies in the propensity of Indian Political System where politicians try to control every bit of social life as a mean to further their political gains. Indian politics is all pervading and Pawar at the helm of BCCI and very likely atop ICC signals the danger of hijacking of Cricket by these politicians with scant competence in running a global sports organization in a ruthlessly competitive global sports and media market.

Umesh Patil
Cupertino, CA 95014.
March 17, 2007

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