Samir Chopra October 25, 2008

Free for all

The spectacle of a keenly contested Test match being played in front of empty rows of seats rankles, and it does not comfort me too much to know that plenty of interest is being shown in people's living rooms

Why are Indian stadiums empty? © AFP
There has been plenty of concern expressed recently about the future of Test cricket; these have reached a crescendo (or so it seems) with evidence of the largely-empty stands at Mohali. Some commentators have even described the presence of schoolchildren who were let in for free as further evidence of the desperate straits that Test cricket finds itself in.

While I am concerned about the future of Test cricket in a world that seems to be increasingly headed towards the moneyed pastures of the Twenty20 World, I disagree that Tests are on their way out in India. And furthermore, I believe the Mohali schoolchildren experiment provides a very good model for how Tests could be further bolstered in India.

First things first. I do not think Test cricket is fading in India. Television audiences still remain gigantic, and there is no shortage of discussion about the game whether on the street, at homes, at schools and colleges and so on. Yes, there is more competition for spectators (most notably from English Premier League Football) but if interest in Tests is measured by whether it is on people's minds, and by whether advertisers think people are watching, then its levels remain high.

But why are Indian stadiums empty? The reasons for this are manifold. Indian stadiums are not comfortable places (BCCI please note), and there is competition for a family's live-cricket-watching budget. Why not just go watch a Twenty20 or an ODI instead when you are guaranteed a result at the end of the day? And of course, television coverage is of high-quality and you can make more frequent trips to the kitchen for snacks and drinks at home (and pay less)

Still, the spectacle of a keenly contested Test being played in front of empty rows of seats rankles, and it does not comfort me too much to know that plenty of interest is being shown in people's living rooms. How can this problem be fixed?

Here is my solution (perhaps applicable only in the unique economic context of the BCCI and Indian cricket). Tickets are sold in order to make money for the local cricketing association. It also makes money from the advertising hoardings that line the ground, and presumably it picks up a piece of the action from the television rights deal. What I suggest is that admission to the ground be made free. Don't charge anything. Let people walk up to the gate, go through the security check, and walk right in.

In order to make up the associated loss of gate receipts, the BCCI and the local association should carry out a calculation of estimated revenues, and simply add that on to the television rights and ground advertising deals. The television company in question will not only get to show an Indian Test team at home, they will be able to show a reasonably packed stadium, which can only add to the spectacle. Advertising rates can also be adjusted upwards in order to reflect the reality of more eyeballs at the ground. And the state association will see increased revenues from sales of food and drink at the ground.

Or perhaps some other subsidy deal can be worked out. The details are not as important as the idea that Test entry should be made free. If it is a form of the game worth preserving (and hopefully the BCCI and the state association can agree on this), then it behooves them to come up with some other revenue model that lets the ground association make up their gate receipts.

Yes, I'm saying that attendance at the game should be subsidised. But this is not such a radical idea. Giving away something for free so that a larger customer base can be attracted, who might then go on to become bigger spenders on other forms of the game, is an idea that is present in many other forms of entertainment (most notably in the modern music industry where music might be given away for free so as to attract a larger fan base to live concerts who then spend money on T-shirts and the like). The BCCI could land up creating a whole new generation of cricket fans brought up on Test cricket.

I think some simple number crunching will show that this is a viable idea. I welcome reader suggestions on other possible subsidy arrangements to make Test entry free in India.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here