December 9, 2011

Why India needs to push cricket more

All the signs are that cricket isn't automatically getting the eyeballs it used to in the past. There needs to be a concerted effort to market it better

Powered thus far by a seemingly insatiable consumer and a buoyant economy, Indian cricket might just be headed for a little bit of turbulence. Television ratings are down, stadiums aren't as full as before, the social media are giving voice to unrest at the way the game is being offered, and television companies are cutting costs. The cricket world must hope that all will be well again soon, and that possessing a ticket to a big game will again be seen as a status symbol.

To be fair there is no challenger to cricket in sight, not yet, but this was supposed to be the bumper year for fans and television networks. In the space of 12 months, India were to host the World Cup, the IPL, travel to England and finally to Australia. Outside of India v Pakistan, those are the four biggest events in Indian cricket. But if it didn't turn out to be the year it was meant to be, it was because, apart from all those, fans also had the Champions League, two series against West Indies, and a set of one-day games against England. There was biryani on offer but there was too much of it.

Meanwhile football grows in popularity every day, and while the numbers aren't challenging cricket yet, they are notching up impressive growth. Formula 1 was accepted with great excitement and there is a hockey league in the pipeline that deserves to be successful - if not for anything else, to remind arrogant officials that an alternative exists. Marketers, though, are looking beyond, at what engages today's youth, and social media and music are emerging as pretty likeable pastimes. Cricket cannot exist, and proclaim itself to be unchallenged, in the narrow definition of sport; it must reign in the wider world of entertainment. The Economic Times this week did a lead feature on alternatives to cricket; at lower price points, it seems marketers are willing to buy into them.

This is not meant to be an obituary, just a wake-up call. A reminder that seemingly unchallenged product categories and brands can suddenly be threatened. Kodachrome is gone, Nokia has been to the brink, and American Airlines is threatened. The euro is being looked at anew, countries are mulling their existences, and the 140-character statement is rampant. The owners of cricket need to be vigilant too, need to constantly review their product offering for relevance and quantity. And be ready for the inevitable dip in viewership once Sachin Tendulkar retires.

It means the game needs to be marketed in India. Only the IPL did that in recent times, reaching out to people and offering an entertainment package. The BCCI needs to be aware that coming to stadiums is currently a cumbersome process for spectators, and television companies will have to be careful to see that the telecasts they produce are the best possible. We sat on concrete steps once, five sitting where three were meant to, and didn't complain. The younger generation, the current custodians of the game, aren't going to be as patient. And they shouldn't have to be.

Marketers are looking at what engages today's youth, and social media and music are emerging as pretty likeable pastimes. Cricket cannot exist, and proclaim itself to be unchallenged, in the narrow definition of sport; it must reign in the wider world of entertainment

Already the Test championship is gone, not because the ICC is insensitive but because it didn't justify the rights amount attached to it. It was a shootout with a one-day tournament and the Test championship lost. It is unlikely the next set of ICC rights will attract the kind of numbers that exist now, and the latest television rights to cricket in India showed no increase over the earlier set. It has implications for the development of the game in other parts of the world.

We are seeing, too, the first signs of the prioritisation of the game along commercial lines. India go to England again in three rather than four years, to play five rather than four Tests. Australia have revived the tri-series because with India around, non-home games still have some interest. But the numbers will be watched closely. India v England didn't get the audiences it was meant to, and that is why Australia v India will be a huge test. If viewership is low, it will be further proof that even marquee series are now being affected. But the bigger test will be the IPL. Advertisers love it because it gives uniform viewership figures, but advertisers can only love it if the public does.

If India's cricket lovers show reduced interest in these prime properties, the BCCI will have to start doing something it has never had to do before: take the game to the public and sell it to them. Hopefully they will realise that people need to look forward to a feast, not be offered it every day; that people must say, "Wow, biryani", not "Biryani again?"

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jawahar on December 12, 2011, 21:43 GMT

    After that a repeat(in reverse though) that too ODIs, with England - how interesting can that be? If Swann trashed the series - for his own reasons - ineffect he was verbalizing what we felt. And then Windies - frankly I wished after all that passed, for one. Indian team get beaten in some more matches, this time by Windies, and Sachin not scoring a hundred. Indian team did not oblige but Sachin did - Sachin usually does for such wishes - like he does not score a lot after getting beaten or reprieved many times and does not thrash minnows. Really wins or hundreds against the Windies after THAT England tour - what do they count for? Now we can look squarely at the other dis-un- interesting factor of Indian cricket - bowling. Not a single bowler looks threatening against decent teams - I reserve opinion on Ashwin till he plays one of Aus, England, SA or Pakistan teams. For all the batting records and performances, it is bowlers who make Cricket interesting. The reasons why WI of 80s,

  • Jawahar on December 12, 2011, 21:41 GMT


    A good topic and interesting in that the really the insatiable appetite of Indian cricket followers is waning. I like to offer myself as a case - and see if there are pointers other than those related to Marketers and administrators - namely cricket itself. The interest lowers when Cricket dished out itself is below par. For Indian fans this means Indian team performance and also a certain individual's performance who carries as much weightage as the team with fans like me (many times more). The England tour was one I really looked forward to - but look at Indian team performance there and the we were left squeamish and totally deflated. Everything other than Dravid was humiliating. Not the defeats themselves but the manner of losing. And Mr. Tendulkar's non-performance further demoralized(dont mind if similar performance by a Kohli or Raina would have cemented their places in the team - but it is TENDULKAR we are looking at right?) .

  • Richard on December 12, 2011, 10:54 GMT

    Were there really that many 'true' cricket lovers in India? Perhaps the recent slump is due to the masses that were drawn to the instant gratification on the IPL moving on to their next instant thrill.

  • Dummy4 on December 11, 2011, 17:12 GMT

    Harsha has touched upon a very interesting point. The viewpoint that an overdose of cricket is resulting in lack of interest among viewers is compelling, and backed by clear evidence of falling attendances at stadiums. However, if one were to step outside cricket and India, then baseball in the U.S. for example is a sport that stages hundreds of Major league and Minor league games in a year. Even then, there is a huge fan following, stadium attendances are good, and in general viewership is not affected so much by the fatigue-factor. Perhaps there is something to be learned there ? Possibly the time has come when BCCI and others should leverage the inevitable convergence of sports and entertainment, and come out with new ways to market the sport better to stay relevant to the new generation of fans/consumers (as indeed they did with the IPL)

  • Dummy4 on December 11, 2011, 6:37 GMT

    The problem is too much cricket. IPL is fun but does not evoke the same loyalty as matches between countries. In fact there is no tension...unlike an Ind v Pak fixtue. Moreover, the economy is bad. The normal man has to struggle at work as even IT companies have become stricter due to recession. Plus the scams have had an effect. The new gen has other interests beside sports...a quality life in the US or elsewhere. So cricket is not seen in the same way as a few years back.

  • Dummy4 on December 11, 2011, 5:22 GMT

    overkill. period. the bcci needs to humble down. The surplus it seems to be resting on is slowly corroding. this is why young leadership is so important. and as usual, this is where the "elders" need to gracefully exit for the greater good of the game.

  • ankur on December 10, 2011, 21:04 GMT

    I think the problem for a comparatively lesser amount of cricket viewers across the country is just because of the kind of tournaments which have been played by India in recent times. The no. of viewers at first dropped during India's tour of West Indies just because the quality of cricket and competition over there was not that much Exciting , Secondly in England an abrupt increase in no. of injuries to Indian players(especially Zaheer Khan and the exceptional poor performance of the team lead to an exponential decrease in number of viewers and the third one against England was completely one sided. Over the West Indies' tour, the absence of gayle and some more exciting players from West Indian side lead to a decrease in no. of viewers albeit the series is fascinating. The Australian side on the other hand is a much better opponent and no. of viewers will increase and perhaps no need of marketing is required to get the fans back to their seats.

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2011, 19:30 GMT

    Lets come to IPL... as a pakistani I have no interest in it... I enjoyed the first IPL and for that matter the ICL season with the Lahore Badshas... why? because Pakistani players were playing in it... though I am all for the leagues like IPL or ICL... as long as they dont interfere with the international calender... but I dont like the new trend where players are more interested in the IPL games than their national teams... like a lot of westindians wont be available for their national side for the upcoming series with Australia... this is wrong... I enjoyed the recent ODI series between PAK and BANG... not because Pak won but because Bangalis had the guts to make spinning wickets knowing fully well that Pak has one of the best spin attacks in the world... not like some Ind-Pak series where they played on dead wickets... people come to see exciting and close matches even if their team looses... so much to say... so little time...

  • Milind on December 10, 2011, 17:03 GMT

    Cricket enjoys a natural popularity in India that other sports don't, for whatever reason! If the game is losing popularity with the masses in India, it means that either the youth are not too oriented towards the game either because of lack of space & time, or there is an overdose of cricket. Indian fans would love to see marquee contests like an Ind/Pak series, which goes beyond just cricket itself! I don't think adding more frizzle to cricket like the IPL does will work, since cricket is not just a spectator sport like car racing etc.

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2011, 12:31 GMT

    It's simple - we watch when we win or else we do something useful. The viewership drop is mainly because of India's horrible show in England. For instance, during the England series, I neither turned on the sports channel nor came to Cricinfo. If India wins at MCG you will see excitement in India, and if it goes kaput then no TV money. So, forget marketing, ask Team India to be serious and win the game.

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