You cannot sell what you do not own

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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

5.45pm IST - Contract problems in cricket

There's a glitch in the matrix. I got a sense of déjà vu a couple of days back when I logged on to Cricinfo and read about Shoaib Akhtar refusing to sign the central contract offered by his board because of a particular clause. It was actually déjà vu about déjà vu, as I'd got exactly the same feeling a week ago when the West Indian contracts crisis erupted. In both cases, the boards concerned had sought to place a restriction on their players' endorsements rights, in a manner similar to what the Indian board had done a couple of years ago. It proves that cricket administrators still haven't learnt from their mistakes, and haven't realised the limits of commerce. One fundamental rule: you cannot sell what you do not own.

The ICC first made this mistake two years ago while getting sponsors for the Champions Trophy and the World Cup. In addition to the rights for the event, and all the privileges associated with it, it promised their sponsors, in return for a hefty premium, that none of the players who played in those events would endorse a rival brand during the tournament, and for a specified period before and after it. It was, thus, not only selling the rights to the event, which it owned, but also the players' commercial rights, which it did not. In return for this, needless to say, it got a premium on the price it would have otherwise got.

Then the ICC passed the parcel. It got each of the national boards to take the onus upon themselves, in their agreement with the ICC, to deliver on this clause. Thus, after the ICC sold the sponsors what it did not own, the various cricket boards, including India's BCCI, promised the ICC what they, in turn, did not possess.

Indian players, on that occasion, felt more aggrieved that others, because they had far more endorsement deals and, thus, many more conflicts. The most obvious conflicts came because they had signed previous endorsement deals with existing sponsors who were in competition with tournament sponsors. They could only play if they signed the tournament contract that the ICC required them to sign, but if they did so, they would be in conflict with earlier agreements they had signed, and subject to lawsuits. (For details of that controversy - all its protagonists and the flow of events - you could read an analysis I'd written in January 2003 for Wisden.com, "A conflict of interests".)

The crux of that issue, and of these two, is this: the cricket boards, and the ICC, do not have any right to tell the players who they may or may not endorse. The players' commercial rights are their own property. A cricket board can sell the logo on a player's uniform because the player is representing it while playing a match, but when he is off the field, in his private domain, the board has no claim on him. A player is contracted by his board to perform a particular task - to play representative cricket and perhaps to take part in associated events and promotions - but outside that ambit, the board has no control over him. For the West Indian board to seek to restrict their players' personal endorsements, and for the Pakistan board to insist that the players seek their permission before accepting such deals, is outrageous. It is tantamount to your employer renting out a room in a house that you own - it mixes up two separate domains.

If a cricket board wants to control a player's commercial rights, it has the right to explicitly bid for it, and the player has the right to reject that bid if it is too far short of his market price, or even if it isn't and he just feels like it. But the ICC has no right to attempt to restrict those rights. It is unethical to promise such a restriction to a sponsor, and just as unethical to effectively blackmail a player into giving up his rights with the threat of removal from the team.

It is misguided to say that because the players owe their celebrity to the cricket they play, they owe their commercial value to the board. To go back to my earlier analogy, let's say that you do not allow your employer to rent out a room in your house. "It's my house," you tell him, "our relationship is restricted to the office. My house belongs to me." And then he threatens to fire you from your job, thus affecting your ability to pay your mortgage. Even if you got your house loan on the basis of your income, it is still you, and not your employer, who owns the house. (My analogy is imperfect, of course - in the hypothetical situation, you could always find another job that would allow you to pay the mortgages, but in cricket, the boards hold a monopoly on representative games.)

I suspect in both the West Indian and the Pakistani cases, the players will eventually have to compromise a bit - after all, their careers are at stake - and practicality will win out over principle. But I'm equally sure that if they went to court, they would win. The cricket boards are being greedy, trying to milk this cow beyond a reasonable extent. Ah, if only the cow could turn, reveal itself to be a bull, and charge.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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