November 2, 2011

India needs to get bums on seats

The poor turnouts, now even for ODIs, are worrying, and those with a stake in the game cannot sit back thinking TV rights will take care of everything

It is now well established that we have seen the first signs of viewer fatigue towards cricket in India, and towards one-day cricket at that (crowds for Test matches have been low for a long time now).

To be fair to the BCCI, I think the low turnouts for the India-England one-day games took all of us by surprise. This is the first time in the history of modern Indian cricket that low attendances have become an issue - something I thought would never happen in my lifetime. It will be interesting to see what view the board takes of this and how it reacts.

The first Formula 1 race in India was last week, and it served as a reminder that the country is changing, and changing rapidly. It is something everyone invested in Indian cricket should take note of.

We all know excessive cricket is the singular reason for the indifference we see today from fans, but with the FTP already in motion and all boards committed to it, it would be unrealistic to expect administrators to suddenly cut down on the volume of cricket so as to get fans to look forward to an international game, as opposed to making international cricket available to them all the time. In an ideal world there should have been no India-West Indies series, or for that matter the five-match one-day series against England.

Imagine the fan interest if India were seen in action after a gap of two months, in Australia. That would also have meant more time for India to prepare for that tour, and presumably better cricket. The obvious cutting down on quantity for increased quality may come about a few years from now but not in the near future.

What, then, is the next best thing that can be done to bring crowds to grounds? The immediate, and toughest, challenge is the upcoming India-West Indies series. At least there won't be the excuse of surprise here. We know the fans will not be queuing up for this one. The obvious simple solution is to slash ticket prices, or even make entry to the Tests free, to make sure the stands are not embarrassingly empty.

The administrators have a stroke of luck here. Sachin Tendulkar has declared himself available for the Tests against West Indies. What better incentive for the fans to come to the ground than to watch their hero get his 100th international hundred? That would be the centrepiece of my marketing agenda for the first Test: "Watch the legend in flesh and blood as he creates history." Sure, every fan knows about this imminent landmark, but Indian cricket administrators cannot take it for granted anymore that people will turn up by the busload to watch it. They still need to be enticed. A gift - a small memento of the occasion - to every fan who came to the ground, saying "I was there when it happened", would not be a bad idea.

Low turnouts also do great damage to cricket as a TV product. TV viewers get put off when they see empty stands in the background; they take it as an indication that what they are watching is not that fancy. I wonder if TV companies communicate their anxiety about empty stands to the cricket boards, for that sort of image does terrible damage to their efforts of hyping a cricket event.

Lalit Modi was an exception among Indian administrators in that he took personal pride in staging BCCI events. He considered a low turnout for an IPL game a slap on the face

I am not a big Lalit Modi fan, but this is where you have to take your hat off to the man. In the second year of the IPL, when it had to be moved to South Africa, I don't know what Modi did, but it was unbelievable to see big crowds at South African grounds, watching what was essentially an Indian tournament. Modi was an exception among Indian administrators in that he took personal pride in staging BCCI events. He considered a low turnout for an IPL game a slap on the face. No wonder you had people thronging to watch the IPL.

I have seen Sri Lanka Cricket being indifferent to a handful of people watching a Sri Lanka v South Africa game at the SSC. And there are a few other boards that sit back and relax after receiving their TV rights money. We see daily on television how channels desperately promote their shows, trying to drum up viewership. The time has come for local cricket associations to do the same to bring fans back in large numbers to the grounds.

In England and Australia, watching cricket is, for the fans, a tradition in many ways, and that is an important reason why those countries have managed decent crowds over the years. Other cricket boards could look at their formula and maybe tweak things around a bit. I know this is easier said than done.

I remember commentating at a triangular tournament played in Morocco few years back. (Yes, Morocco.) The organisers there did a very interesting thing. They knew they were not going to get too many locals coming to the stadium to watch the matches, as the event was only stage-managed for TV. To make it attractive for TV, they needed crowds to fill up the ground, and to achieve that, they had raffles after the game, where TVs and other gadgets were given away as prizes to fans whose match tickets bore lucky numbers. There were at least 10,000 Moroccans who had no idea what they were watching on the field but stayed on well after the presentation ceremony. Why? For the raffle.

I am not suggesting that needs to be done in India yet, but because those managing the Morocco event had a personal stake in its success, there was a concerted effort to attract spectators to the grounds.

The bottom line is, if board officials around the world are affected personally, like, say, a shopkeeper is when people don't give him their custom, there are things they can do to get the crowds in. The grounds may not be choc a bloc for Test matches (the timings there are a major hurdle) but at least we can make sure that a Test match does not become a place young couples head to for a little quiet and privacy.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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