May 6, 2010

Put the game before the brand

Thinking of cricket purely as a brand will only impede the clean-up the BCCI needs to undertake in the wake of the IPL mess

When Lalit Modi came to the podium after the final of the third Indian Premier League, with minutes ticking away on his reign, he had what few administrators at presentation ceremonies can claim to have enjoyed: a captive audience. What would it be? You won't have Modi to kick around any more, a la Richard Nixon? Old BCCI vice-presidents never die, they just fade away, a la Douglas MacArthur?

Not quite, although Modi, for him, flirted with rhetoric: "Indian People's League… I have lived a dream… Humble servant of the game." Then there was the quote from the Bhagavad Gita, which some oblivious viewers may have mistaken for another sponsor (coming soon: the Mahabharata Moment of Success). Finally there came a defiant roar: "We should not allow this brand to be diluted and we will not."

What Modi meant, of course, was that nothing should be permitted to harm the IPL's reputation, although that he dropped so easily into the jargon of Marketing 101 shows how thoroughly this patois now pervades sport. Manchester United. New York Yankees. Chicago Bulls. If you still think of them merely as sporting clubs, you are so five minutes ago: they're brands, ripe for extending, leveraging, repositioning and spinning off from.

As for diluting said brand, well, it's equivalent as a commercial taboo to stepping on Elvis's Blue Suede Shoes. Knock me down, step in my face, slander my name all over the place… just don't dilute my brand.

Since inception, the IPL has worn its brand value like a corroboration of inner virtue. On the eve of this tournament, under the headline "Brand IPL touches the sky", the league's website reverberated with the announcement that Brand Finance, a branding consultancy, had valued the brand value of the IPL brand at $4.13 billion worth of brand - which is a lot of brand, brand-wise.

How Brand Finance arrived at that figure was unexplained, because such exercises, involving as they do mainly guesswork, marketing mumbo jumbo, and a few spreadsheets for appearance's sake, rejoice in their sense of magic, the illusion of money conjured from nothing by gee-whiz branding gurus. In the case of the IPL, of course, Modi started with rather more than nothing: there was already a deep and abiding Indian passion for the game, built over generations, which with the backing of an entrenched monopoly for its promotion, he set to exploiting. But I shouldn't spoil the illusion.

Since Modi's Mumbai sign-off, much commentary has been focused on the brand-dilution potential inherent in its scandals. MS Dhoni doesn't think we should worry: "IPL as a brand can survive on its own." Shilpa Shetty, "brand ambassador" of the Rajasthan Royals, tweets that we should: "Custodians of Cricket must not hamper d Brandvalue of this viable sport." Hampering d Brandvalue, insists new IPL boss Chirayu Amin, is the furthest thing from his mind: "IPL's brand image is strong and nobody can touch that." Harsha Bhogle, however, frets for the nation: "Within the cricket world, Brand India will take a hit."

Not much more than a week after Modi's first tell-all tweets, the media was anxiously consulting Brand Finance's managing director, Unni Krishnan. Had there been any brand dilution yet? It was, said the soothsayer gravely, "too early to say". He could, however, confirm the following: "The wealth that can be created by the brand is going to be substantially significant for many stakeholders. A conducive ecosystem has to be created to move the brand to the next level… We have to build the requisite bandwidth to monetise these opportunities." Er, yeah… what he said. Anyway, placing a value on the IPL brand has clearly been quite beneficial to Brand Finance's brand.

What's missing from these bromides of the brandscape is any sense that there is a game involved, that cricket might be at risk of sustaining collateral damage. Ten years ago the spectre of match-fixing caused fans to despair of the damage to their beloved game; some of us still can't look at cricket in quite the same way. The assumption now is that the interests of the brand and of the game overlap to the degree that cricket need hardly be mentioned.

But do they overlap so exactly? A game is a cultural activity, operating at myriad levels, all of which need to be maintained, nurtured, protected. In the world of the brand, all that really matters is the face shown the public, the spectacle, the image. A game depends on fair dealing, robust processes and good people prepared to place their individual interests second. Both a game and a brand are at reputational risk, but in the case of the brand only the appearance of respectability and integrity is essential, and that can be achieved, or so it is usually felt, by sound media management, and at worst post hoc damage control. Nike runners produced in Asian sweatshops? Not a problem, unless it affects sales. Tiger Woods a compulsive multiple adulterer? Better try keeping it quiet, lest "Brand Tiger" be imperiled.

A game is a cultural activity, operating at myriad levels, all of which need to be maintained, nurtured, protected. In the world of the brand, all that really matters is the face shown the public, the spectacle, the image

So this is not a problem confined to the IPL or India. It applies wherever sport meets big corporate interests, and these days that means everywhere. Australia, moreover, has little to teach anyone on this subject. Consider this country's scandal of the moment, involving the National Rugby League and its premier team, the Melbourne Storm. The Storm, the vanguard of the code's push into the south, has been stripped of honours after being revealed by an anonymous whistle-blower to have been systematically and fraudulently breaching the salary cap.

Salary cap rorts are a common Australian phenomenon; the attitude to them recalls the philosophy popularly applied to gays in the US military: "Don't ask, don't tell." The Melbourne Storm CEO implicated in this particular debacle argues that "everyone does it"; 92% of respondents to an online poll last week agreed. But the NRL declines to widen or deepen its investigations because, frankly, the stakes are too high; better to scapegoat one club pour encourager les autres. The situation is exacerbated by the NRL being half-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which has no interest in the scandal worsening because of the risk of further dilution of its hard-won brand.

Has something similar happened in the IPL? One of the more candid critiques of events has been provided by MAK Pataudi, member of the governing council that either knew everything and did nothing (by Modi's account), or nothing and will henceforward do everything (by its own). According to Pataudi, he and his fellow council members simply assumed "things were okay"; indeed they were "carried away with how well everything was going". Then this: "I saw the crowds, the IPL was very popular... the dirt that has been attached to it is sad... but as long as the product was good, I was happy.' When one of Indian cricket's greats attends a game and simply sees a "product", then the brand truly has become a graven idol. But then it's perhaps not so surprising. So transfixed has the BCCI been by its own commercial prowess over the last three years that agencies with the potential to impede have been held at a haughty arm's length. Move along, ICC Anti-Corruption Unit. There's nothing to see here, World Anti-Doping Authority. Don't bother us now - we're busy brand-building.

The brand mentality is now at odds with the thorough investigation that cricket surely needs. The BCCI will be anxious to contain the damage, to look nowhere it does not absolutely have to, and to place as much blue water between itself and Modi as possible. Because to a brand, as distinct from a game, administrative corruption is no biggie, providing it remains out of sight. Crooked players? That would be a party-pooping diluter. But do IPL fans care about conflict of interest and nepotism, about free-floating facilitation fees and freely given sweat equity? Well, certainly not if they don't hear about it. A slightly seedy reputation? That can be lived with. Some have already conjectured that an aura of sleaze will invest the IPL with further tawdry glamour - in which case it's high time the D Company had its own franchise.

Where's cricket in all this? Good question. Because if that $4 billion of brand is scraped away, somewhere beneath lies a worldwide game whose value cannot be priced, even by the mavens of Brand Finance. The BCCI, then, has a grave responsibility - a responsibility that's actually greater than simply protecting an oh-so-valuable brand from the unspeakable horrors of dilution.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer