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