December 10, 2006

What happens to the game itself?

A billion or so dollars will pour into cricket ... but at what cost?

To justify outrageous costs television could well become more intrusive, arguably, to the game's detriment © Getty Images

There are celebrations, no doubt, in the world of cricket over the auctioning of the ICC's TV rights from 2007 to 2015. It's not known exactly how much ESPN-Star Sports will pay for the rights but it's believed to be double of what the ICC earned the last time, which puts it at around $1.1 billion.

While it pales in comparison to the $1.5 billion Rupert Murdoch's Sky Sports paid for three-year rights to telecast English Premier League football, that's a huge, huge figure by cricketing standards. No wonder the ICC's wise men, assembled in Dubai for the purpose, were over the moon.

No complaints about the figure, then. Nor even about where the money is going. If indeed cricket is to grow into a truly international sport (despite the obvious hurdles such a quintessentially English game presents), beyond the Commonwealth, it needs money. That it now has.

No quibbles there, either. Yet one wonders what this will do to the game itself. Too much money - and the hankering for still more -- has already eaten away at the soul of football, turning a working man's sport into an indulgence for the wealthy; the meat pies have been famously replaced by prawn sandwiches.

The most obvious concern among cricket fans, and not just the anoraks or Long Room traditionalists but the common folk who just love their sport, is the high pressure that TV companies will come under to recoup the high cost of rights they have bought. Cricket became entertainment long ago; 30 years ago, to be precise, when Kerry Packer turned the game on its head with coloured clothing and innovative marketing. Yet that was to prove a point - that the game, in effect, belonged to everyone - and, point proved, cricket returned to a semblance of normalcy.

Normal conditions were suspended, at least for Indian viewers, in March 2003 when Set Max unleashed its version of cricket coverage with Mandira Bedi and her noodle straps playing the moll to a panel of grizzled ex-cricketers. The sound of jaws hitting the floor in disbelief was drowned out by whirr of ratings hitting the roof, justifying Set Max's decision to break into new territory and buy cricket telecast rights. The domino effect was staggering, as the news channels, caught up in intense, often insane, competition, succumbed like the English batsmen at Adelaide and chased the lowest common denominator.

Later that same year, ESPN-Star Sports, the same outfit that won the ICC's rights for the next eight years, pepped up its coverage of India's tour Down Under - a series accompanied by enough cricketing drama - with the Shaz and Waz Show. For those of you lucky enough to have missed it, it featured two great former cricketers engaging in puerile locker-room banter, usually with a girl from the crowd who'd drawn the short straw and had one eye on the exit. The result was obvious: though response was mixed, the bottomline was that everyone watched.

'The logic is simple: If India play, Indians watch, advertisers pay. Take India out of a tournament and the revenues disappear' © Getty Images

It's impossible for ESPN-Star to reverse the trend, and frankly implausible to expect them to even attempt it (though they could use Twenty20 as their vehicle for regression into laddish humour). ESPN may have the match telecast rights but will have to fight for eyeballs in the pre- and post-game shows, and during the breaks.

The more serious concern, of course, derives from the enormous power that India - home to a majority of ESPN-Star's viewers - now wields. It's nothing new: around 40 per cent of what GCC paid the ICC for the rights last time was recouped from Set Max for the India rights. Lalit Modi, the BCCI vice-president, had told Cricinfo that Sony paid $208 million of the GCC's $532 million.

Already responsible for around 70% of cricket's global revenues, the Indian viewership is the main factor for any cricket tournament to break even. It's why match telecast in India is squeezed down to six balls an over - sometimes less when DD gets into its emasculating act - and is shorn of the drama just before and after an over. That sort of saturation advertising is also why the BCCI's grouse against the Champions Trophy, and the threat of not participating, was a matter of serious concern. The logic is simple: If India play, Indians watch, advertisers pay. Take India out of a tournament and the revenues disappear. There were strong rumours during the last World Cup of the pitches being suited to Indian batsmen because an early Indian exit would have been disastrous. In any case TV channels love batting pitches in ODIs because they maximize the length of the game; anything remotely sporting runs the risk of early closure.

It's not unusual for TV programming to dictate what happens on the sports field: the time-outs in American sports are perfect for lengthy, revenue-spinning ad breaks. Football has long been hostage to TV money; the 1986 World Cup in Mexico was scheduled with the European audience in mind so you had the world's best footballers running around in the noonday sun. The top European leagues have to work their match schedules to suit the demands of TV programming, so that in England, for example, the traditional Saturday afternoon kickoff is almost a rarity. It affects the fan who wants to support his team: Imagine traveling from Newcastle, in the north-east, to Southampton, on the south coast, in time for a noon kickoff?

The fans at the stadiums is something neither TV channels nor the BCCI has to worry about, yet that should be another cause of concern. The global cricket economy is based on the pulling power of the Indian team; that's less than two dozen players. Not a league, not a fixed structure, nothing of permanence. A handful of players, most of whom will definitely not be around in 2015. That involves several what ifs, chiefly, What if the Indian team has a long-term lack of quality players and a long spell of bad results? And what if, as a consequence, it makes early exits from the big tournaments?

Which brings us to the inevitable point: Can cricket television stretch to make the kind of money that ESPN-Star Sports are paying. Simple arithmetic - the money spent divided by the 165 matches available (going by current schedules) in two World Cups and three Champions Trophies - leaves the broadcasters having to recoup $6 million per match. Not much of a surprise, then that SetMax didn't even put up a bid this time.

Of course, it may all end up apple-shaped: India's current young bunch could be the next Dream Team, the eyeballs will be glued to the screens, the advertisers and sponsors will be smiling. It's not impossible. If only we could get back cricket coverage as we knew it.

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Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India