October 21, 2011

Fewer games or smaller profits for Indian cricket

The implications of the vast amount of cricket that's being played are finally being felt in terms of viewership and revenues

And so, after spending much time and money, after generating much hope and enthusiasm among lovers of Test cricket, the ICC Test Championship has more or less been put back by four years, to a rather distant 2017. Cricket will have had three or four world events in between. Much can change between now and 2017. I greatly fear that the ICC Test Championship will go down as a romantic idea that fell at the doorstep of television funding.

It is important to understand that different people view this game differently. The players, most of the media, and some administrators, represent the more romantic side of cricket. They want the game retained as it was in their childhood, and enjoy the relative timelessness of it all. Arrayed against them (in a manner of speaking, since accountants can be cricket lovers too!) are the number crunchers: people who will do the sums, add and subtract numbers and work out if a Test championship is indeed a profitable venture. You can be passionate, but nobody is in the business of losing money.

Every time I want to feel the pulse of cricket in India, I speak to media buyers - people who have the responsibility of spending money that belongs to their clients. Contrary to the widely held view of such people in the money markets, media buyers need to be responsible folk, since they are, eventually, answerable. The opinion of media buyers is an aggregation of what corporations interested in sport believe, and so it is a fair snapshot of the popularity of the game. The view of the media buyer is also critical to the rights holders, because they have to recover money that has already been spent.

You can understand why ESPN STAR Sports would have preferred an ICC tournament played over 50 overs over a Test championship. I suspect the ICC would have had the option of replacing one with the other at a lower rights fee, but the money that flows in from television rights funds almost all the cricket-playing nations, and the ICC cannot take a cut on that. The only option, therefore, would be to put a Test championship into the calendar while inviting bids for the next issue of television rights.

And so, in what must be rather humbling for all of us who like to have a say in where the world game should go, we don't count. In the commercial world that sport needs necessarily to exist in, it is not the ICC's cricket committee, made up of some respected names, that decides on a Test championship but the media buyers and sponsors in different parts of the world. Well, actually, India.

This has implications for cricket. Healthy as Test cricket might seem on the surface, it ranks third among the three forms of the game in terms of advertiser interest, which is a direct reflection of public interest. And it would be fair to say that outside of England, and occasionally Australia, India and South Africa, it may not be a good business proposition; that maybe the much-maligned one-day international still funds the much-feted Test match.

Something else is happening in India that might have a bearing on the future of the game here. A friend recently told me that for the first time since he can remember, nobody asked him if he could get them passes for the one-day international against England in Delhi -- the stronghold of "pass culture". Now that might be too little evidence to base a conclusion on but it is an indicator that Indian audiences now believe there is too much cricket thrust on them.

And so they will prioritise. A friend who works closely on the business side of television told me recently that only two questions seem to matter in the viewership stakes. Are India playing? And are India winning? He might have a point because we recently had an excellent Champions League that not many people watched.

In the days ahead, Indian cricket will either have to offer less to its fans or live with less rights money per game coming its way. It is still a huge market but for the first time the implications of too much cricket are starting to be felt in terms of viewership and revenues.

So 2017, by the looks of it, for the ICC Test Championship, and some breathing space for the teams placed 3-6.

ESPN STAR Sports is a 50:50 joint venture between Walt Disney (ESPN, Inc.), the parent company of ESPNcricinfo, and News Corporation Limited (STAR)

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ashok on October 27, 2011, 12:03 GMT

    When there is no consistency the viewers will fail to watch... back those days, in 90s people used to put leave to offices and stay back to watch cricket at their home, thought we were not the supreme power to play cricket, yet we were winning 70% of the matches or at least until a semi finalists. but today, we either get kicked out in the first round like 2007 world cup or win it hands down like in 2011 WC. BCCI has completely commercialized the cricket body by introducing IPL, which make people to just think slogging is everything... except for those to watch the test match with real interest and a cricket ball in their hand, the test cricket is a boring 5 day process.

  • Dummy4 on October 23, 2011, 6:25 GMT

    Fall in the TV ratings is also because of the viewers moving to the online streming of matches :)

  • Diwakar on October 23, 2011, 5:05 GMT

    What has been thrust on the audience in the name of marketing and taking the game to deep interiors is coming back hard to hit the game itself. While time is money and every new generation has less time than its previous one, the obvious preference would be to maximize from the little time available. However, cricket is a game of skills that transcend beyond the practitioners and touch upon the hearts of knowledgeable audience which understands the nuances and beauty. To state that a T20 or an ODI produces result as compared to a Test match is putting things too simplistically. A hard fought draw and a see saw battle is anyday preferred to a boring ODI or a T20 when 600 to 400+ runs are scored on ultra-small grounds and flat pitches with heavy bats. It is possible to restore the Tests' status ONLY IF the ICC (or is it BCCI?) has the interest to work on it. This article is only a justification by a strong media-cum-marketing man who states his helplessness after doing the damage.

  • Sasi Kumar on October 22, 2011, 19:22 GMT

    ''Is India Playing? Is India winning?". Good to know that for the spectators India comes ahead of the IPL or the CL teams, unlike for the administrators and franchises.

  • Dummy4 on October 22, 2011, 17:43 GMT

    I have a very good idea. There are 10 test playing nations so each nation should play four series in a year and not more than that. By doing this "too much cricket" can be avoided as well as it will attract more audiences during the matches rather than half of the stadium remaining empty. It should be made in this similar fashion to avoid excess cricket. They are playing nearly 250 days of cricket in a year and offcourse it wont attract much fans if its a daily routine. Its a sport so it must be made exciting whenever a series commences rather now its like "one more series huh" in the minds of people. Something should be made otherwise the game is going to lose its fame. Also the T20 world cup should be made four years once rather than two years once otherwise the term "World Cup" remains senseless.

  • Dummy4 on October 22, 2011, 15:27 GMT

    I think the IPL adds to a lot of cricket. Having the IPL once every two years and every other year in between, we could have the CL. This could help cricket viewers and cricket players interested. This would also go a long distance in providing sufficient rest for the players to adjust to the cricketing calendar.

  • Shahid on October 22, 2011, 14:50 GMT

    What is Champions league. When and where was it played?

  • Dummy4 on October 22, 2011, 14:01 GMT

    I have watched the India-Eng Series in England.To be honest i liked it.India may have lost but i liked the skills of English bowlers.India should produce strong-fit-fast bowlers. Instead of organizing matches in same places again and again we should take the game to smaller places like Guwahati,Patna,Rajkot etc where people are waiting to see matches. We should not criticize IPL/T20 as these tournaments are doing what test cricket has not been able to do for quite sometime now- generating money and interest or vice versa. Killing IPL or T20 won't help test cricket.If test cricket is dying we should find ways to develop it. If one day cricket is losing ground we should develop it.Killing one form for other will not serve the purpose. Also, we should not forget people are getting busier- schools,offices,colleges,exams,business etc . They can't take holidays to see test matches.I could not see World Cup because i had my exams then so ONE AUDIENCE less. But i still love cricket.

  • Dummy4 on October 22, 2011, 9:05 GMT

    Harsha while conveying the sponsors' order of preference for the three varieties of cricket, has deliberately avoided stating the obvious: The collusion of broadcasters and administrators of cricket ie BCCI, in deliberately downgrading Test cricket by playing them on lifeless, batsman friendly pitches. The powers who control the game know very well that Test Cricket when played on bowler friendly pitches between major cricketing nations like India,Australia,England, South Africa and Pakistan (especially in the traditional Test centres like Chepauk, Brabourne, Eden gardens,Bangalore etc.) will attract a huge audience both on and off the ground. And then it will be difficult to find space in the calendar for spreading the cash rich T20s, which are played purely for private greed and do a great deal of harm for the truest form of the game. The cricket watching public has unequivocally given a thumbs down to the Champions league T20s and other club matches. But will the powers listen?

  • Andrew on October 22, 2011, 2:35 GMT

    Sad state of affairs. I was hanging on the Oz v SL series recently, to see if Oz can grab back 4th spot & qualify for the Test Championship. The rankings are meaningless anyway.

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