May 8, 2008

Market rules, ok

Success is everything and all else be damned. The IPL has brought football-style despotism into cricket

No more Mr Nice Guy: Vijay Mallya's sacking of his CEO aims to send a strong message across © AFP

So they wanted the IPL to be like English football? Welcome to the real world, a world of billion-dollar TV deals and million-dollar paychecks, chanting crowds and replica jerseys - but also a world where the bottomline rules everything else. The sacking of Charu Sharma as CEO of the Bangalore franchise less than halfway into the first season, after a string of poor results due more to cricketing issues than those under an administrator's care, is nothing but a move to protect that bottomline.

Cricket has, through most of its history, been largely insulated from the madness of despotic action. Yes, there has been the odd dictatorial fiat, the summary dismissal of captain, or more recently, coach - especially on the Indian subcontinent (and perhaps in Yorkshire CCC), where everyone involved with cricket is subject to the slings and arrows. But the sport as a whole, because of its emphasis on national teams and the prevalence of strong - and largely democratic - governing boards in each country, has been spared much of the mayhem prevalent in top-flight football in England, Spain and Italy.

Not any more. As the game's profile has risen, so have the stakes. And those high stakes don't have any time for the "glorious uncertainties of cricket". The bottomline does not respect honour in defeat. All that matters is results; the rest is for the writers and romantics. The big stakeholders are rarely given to sitting on their hands while their team's fortunes dwindle, hoping providence intervenes; they act fast, often shooting the first person in sight, usually shooting first and asking questions later, but shooting. And publicly; they must not merely act, they must be seen to have acted.

Football clubs in the UK, where the sport has the same position as cricket does in India, are seen as goldmines for billionaire investors, and the influx of their wealth has seen the advent of more powerful teams, with more - and perhaps better - footballers than were previously seen in the British leagues. TV revenues have multiplied, the average footballer's wage has increased, the game's profile is universal and omnipotent. But there has been a heavy price to pay.

That price has varied from club to club. Liverpool was bought by two Americans who were buddies at the time but now can't bear to sit in the same room. Manchester United was bought by one American who turned the club from a profitable, cash-rich and debt-free listed company into a private enterprise, which though profitable on its own, owes US$1.5 billion to all creditors and has $1.2 billion in total borrowings. Chelsea's owner, the second-richest man in Britain, has brought two league titles to the club and may bring a third but runs Stamford Bridge with as much glasnost as the Kremlin under Leonid Brezhnev.

Their methods are suitably unilateral. Liverpool's co-owners publicly differ over the future of the coach, Rafa Benitez. Roman Abramovich sacked Chelsea's most successful coach three months into the season last year - Jose Mourinho won matches, but not in the desired style. At Manchester City, owned by the former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the uncertainty over coach Sven-Goran Eriksson's future reportedly sparked a near-revolt among his players.

Everywhere the bottomline is top priority. Once you sign that bottomline, you sign away with it your claim to be treated with dignity and respect. You become an instrument of success - collateral damage if the search for that success requires change.

The big stakeholders are rarely given to sitting on their hands while their team's fortunes dwindle, hoping providence intervenes. They act fast, often shooting the first person in sight, usually shooting first and asking questions later, but shooting

Now cricket must deal with the implications of chasing that bottomline. The franchise owners operate under market conditions. Unlike the BCCI, which is answerable to no one (and doesn't answer even when it is), the men who own the eight teams are accountable. One of them, N Srinivasan - vice-chairman and CEO of India Cements - had to explain in detail to the company's investors why he spent $91 million buying the Chennai franchise. Srinivasan took questions at the meeting with investors and analysts in January and replied in far greater detail than he has been known to at press conferences of the BCCI, of which he is treasurer.

He made two broad points: One, that this was seen as a marketing venture. "The way it will benefit me, how it will develop my brand ... is to use our entire retail chain, our distribution chain, to get involved in this process ... They will get visits by all these cricketers ... top cricketers will go around the state, will go around meeting all our people and customers, which we feel will add great value to our brand."

The second point was on the money. Asked from which year he expected to break even, Srinivasan's reply was unambiguous: "I will make money with day one, year one."

No room for glorious uncertainties there, then.

From that perspective, Vijay Mallya's manoeuvre makes sense. You can question the timing, you can question the target (why the CEO, why not the captain or the chief cricket officer?), but you can't question the intent. Mallya wants results and he wants them now. Not next season, not even at the end of this one. He may not be hostage to share prices but he is concerned about image, which is currently taking a bit of a battering. His sacking of the CEO, however illogical it may seem, will at least convey clearly what he wants.

The ripple effect will be felt across the franchises. In Mumbai, owned by India's richest businessman; in Kolkata, owned by the most successful actor. In Chennai, where some of those investors Srinivasan spoke to will be checking the balance sheet with greater scrutiny. There will be pressure, some uncertainty, perhaps even a bit of fear. Now we know why those playing in the ICL seemed to be having so much fun.

They wanted it to be like football. Someone forgot to tell them it's a whole new ball game.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India