October 7, 2013

Controlling the message

Cricket boards need to realise the game will not perish if they don't monetise every "product" and police the utterances of every player

Back in the day, national cricket administrations customarily referred to themselves as "boards of control". As they expanded in breadth and ambition, they started preferring names with the statutory pretensions of "England Cricket Board" and the technocratic emollience of "Cricket Australia".

But monopolies never lose their hankering to control, and at the moment it's palpably in fashion. Just as their control of players and commercial properties has never been tighter, administrators' efforts to shape what is said and thought about the game grow apace.

Front runner in this respect is the one body still out and proud in its controlling ethos - the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The BCCI actually employs its own commentators, Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar, and requires their use whenever India play at home*, regardless of who owns the rights. There is a checklist of do's and don'ts: no Indian cow was ever so sacred as MS Dhoni's wicketkeeping.

A year ago, Sky commentators were effectively frozen out of covering England's tour of India in retaliation for remarks made about the BCCI during India's earlier tour of England. As Sharda Ugra put it perceptively: "The inability to accept criticism was turned into a national project."

But the BCCI is merely the biggest and meanest representative in what looms as a seminal shift in the relations of administrators to the administrated, from one in which boards held the game in trust on behalf of their public, to one in which they seek to own the game and sell it to "cricket consumers".

It's a world in which the administrators demand everything on their side of the table, in which the mildest aspersion is construed as "talking down the product", and in which everything is reduced to the level of "content".

Last week's "media opportunity" with Australian contracted players, for example, was one hour, starting at 8.30am. It was for all media - radio, print and television - despite their disparate needs. No one-on-one interviews were to be permitted.

These cattle calls are always explained as a function of scarce time, but they're every bit as much about sterilising the interactions of players and media - "controlling the message", as the spin doctors say, as though they're preparing the cricketers to run for public office.

It's an annoyance for the media, but it's also a shame for the players, many of whom are actually pretty interesting, and for the public, who fall back on that habitual lament: "There are no characters in the game anymore." Perhaps this professional age militates against there being so many "characters", but frankly, you would never know.

An image is useful for a sporting organisation to project, but there must be a preparedness for that image to be questioned even as the organisation strives to live up to it

There's a bit more to this than the usual argy-bargy about "access": there's a structural issue too. Just over a year ago, as part of a new strategic plan, CA rejigged its management diagram, with six key executives reporting to CEO James Sutherland. One of these was new recruit Ben Amarfio from Southern Cross Australia, a commercial radio network, previously at the Australian Football League.

On Amarfio was settled the fancy mantle of executive general manager marketing, digital and communications, including everything from overseeing the CA website to dealing with government and regulators: his is also the hand behind the apparently imminent end of the ABC's exclusive hold on radio rights.

The most interesting aspect of Amarfio's portfolio, however, is that it fuses the responsibility for informing the media and public, through communications, with selling the game, through marketing.

On the face of it, these make a reasonable fit: the client constituencies are broadly similar; the objectives are parallel, being to stimulate interest in and enhance appreciation of cricket. Except that, of course, the means by which they do so are vastly different - not quite as different as truth and bullshit, but you get my drift. Communications is chiefly the imparting of information, marketing is mainly the burnishing of image; the first engenders news, the second publicity. To be fair, a good many journalists struggle to tell the difference. But it can be argued that the activities are not simply distinct but actively antagonistic.

Take last Sunday. After the opening match of the Ryobi Cup, Tasmania's George Bailey gave reporters a straight answer to a straight question - something of which all our cricketers should be capable. Asked his view of the summer schedule, he gave it: the Big Bash League was too long, the Ryobi Cup too short, the Sheffield Shield too concentrated.

You may agree or disagree. But the view is at least arguable and hardly an outlier among contemporary cricketers, according to opinions sifted from first-class players by the Australian Cricketers' Association, on whose executive Bailey sits.

Bailey's remarks were news, a CA player picking a bone with the CA schedule, although he actually chose his words quite carefully, acknowledging the significance of "the commercial side" of the BBL and stressing the appreciation of the priorities of the broadcasters - he merely called for "a balance". The problem was, as CA saw it, that the remarks impinged on the commercial value of a cricket "product". Thus Bailey spent a good deal of Sunday night dealing with his irate paymasters, who were peeved that he had picked his nose in the company car park.

There's a piquancy in that Bailey's remarks obtained their best run on ESPNcricinfo, cricket's most prolific eyewitness, started 20 years ago by volunteers, and owned since 2007 by ESPN, an arm of Disney.

Because CA doesn't much like ESPNcricinfo either, regarding it as a competitor of its own website, cricket.com.au; it has designs on capturing ever more online cricket traffic, rather as the Australian Football League has done at afl.com.au, by recruiting its own reporting and editorial staff to generate original content.

It's good news that CA plans to improve its dull-as-digital-dirt profile, which looks like it was designed on a Commodore 64. But the AFL's website works because of the sheer abundance of news thrown off by an established multi-team national competition; CA still largely depends on the fortunes of a middling national team with one marquee player. And why "freeze out" ESPNcricinfo, as it is being put?

ESPNcricinfo is the world of cricket's go-to source. CA's efforts can never hope to emulate it in depth and credibility: imagine, if you can, how cricket.com.au would have reported Bailey's comments, had it even chosen to do so. The loser will be the cricket public. The winner is… well, maybe the cause of building little corporate empires.

CA needs to chill out. Cricket will not perish if it doesn't control every "message" and monetise every "product" for the sake of its "income streams"; cricket will suffer if its public start losing a sense that the game is theirs, and that they're simply being sold something they thought they already owned.

To be sure, an image is useful for a sporting organisation to project, but there must be a preparedness for that image to be questioned even as the organisation strives to live up to it. The game will feel more joyful and more human, and I suspect also be more valuable, for being less "controlled".

* 04:11:55 GMT, October 9, 2013: Changed from "wherever India play"

Gideon Haigh is a cricket columnist for the Australian and the Weekend Australian, where a version of this column appeared on October 5-6

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on October 9, 2013, 11:56 GMT

    Gideon - "Controlling the message" is a good topic. Only that the message is "controlled" by what Haigh - that "independent journalist" - chooses to write (or not): What about the role of big Media & himself? He needles CA's Amarfio re: "end of ABC's exclusive hold on radio rights". Never mind that Haigh's a regular panelist on ABC's sports panel shows! Again Haigh takes pot shots at Shastri & Gavaskar for their loyalty to BCCI (What's new?)! Never mind Haigh brings home the bacon by writing "mainly for The Australian & The Times" - owned by Rupert Murdoch & his News Corp! Murdoch's media empire is engulfed in a huge phone-hacking, bribery & corruption scandal: It's shaken up Britain's power structure! Recently Murdoch's Sky TV was accused of abuse of power for refusing to air a competitor's (BT) ads. Yet (LOL!) Gideon sheds croc tears for Sky commentators "frozen out" by BCCI! Haigh once called Murdoch "that noted apostle of fair play"! OMG! Who's "controlling the message", Gideon?

  • Warks on October 9, 2013, 8:34 GMT

    It does make you wonder what the aim of CA must be. To drive up ticket prices so high that no one attends. To sit back and roll about in the cash generated by TV rights. To destroy the summer schedule ensuring that no players can generate any form if they don't have it. To drive away the dedicated fan base of cricket and bring in fans of the football codes instead.

    Well they are doing everything but the second half of the last sentence.

    Things have to change. Vote 1 Gideon Haigh to lead the revolution!

  • Art on October 8, 2013, 19:55 GMT

    Great article. The problem is, once these guys have started to treat cricket as a product and a way of generating money, rather than a sport and part of our culture, how do we get it back?

  • Michael on October 8, 2013, 2:28 GMT

    Wait, CA has a website? Oh, that's the thing that had barely anything on it from this season (other than where to buy Big Bash League tickets) until a few weeks ago. Though to be fair, I did come across some scorecards from some NSW warm-up matches prior to the start of the Ryobi 'tournament' - a tournament that was announced on the CA website just 9 days before it started. I didn't even realise they'd changed the scheduling until after the first match was completed. Another example of their efforts is the article on Johan Botha's action being reported - 4 paragraphs on CA, 8 (including previous incidences of being reported and comments from one of the batsmen who faced him in the match) on CricInfo. Why again am I bothering with them?

  • Android on October 7, 2013, 18:57 GMT

    friction is the prinipal driver of competitive sport, whether against an opponent or the management. people see things differently and should express themselves accordingky. it is a dull world otherwise and people will lose interest. embracing the differences makes life fun

  • ian on October 7, 2013, 15:51 GMT

    Gideon's article deals with the major business (& business it most certainly is) of cricket at international level. And there is, IMO, a great deal of truth in his take on what is going on, as I attempted to make clear earlier in a trenchant post that has been scored through with the blue pencil, it exists because of the large mass of non-critical cricket fans in India itself. The solution therefore lies in bringing external pressure. Unless the other boards stop coseying up to the BCCI, cricket will continue to be shackled by the ignorance & prejudices of that dysfunctional yet super-rich organization. Might is not right -- and sooner or later the other boards need to make a concerted stand and show that they can get along without living in the shadow of the power-crazed arrogance of the BCCI. There is a v high price for being puppets that do the bidding of the bully; it's called independence. And true independence implies national integrity, delights in proper dignity & is priceless.

  • Isaac on October 7, 2013, 12:41 GMT

    All true; but, sadly, don't expect anything to change. Some people (especially Sir Geoffrey) have been banging on about this for decades, yet the money-grabbing just keeps on accelerating. (btw I don't think any institution in English cricket was ever named a 'board of control'.)

  • SRIVATSAN on October 7, 2013, 11:39 GMT

    Cricket like any other Activity/Occupation/Industry .... has become extremely commoditized. I am not sure how it is in other parts of the World, but the India shining of today has everything Education/Primary schools/Colleges/Hospitals heavily privatized and making money from every where possible. This is primarily addressed at the upper middle class and the nouveau riche and the rest of the population is collateral damage. So Cricket which is India's biggest industry/entertainment is also being used by corrupt politicians and officials to meet their needs. I don't think anything can be done.

  • DAVID on October 7, 2013, 11:02 GMT

    I feel sick whenever I see cricket described as a "product". Once we used to laugh with scorn, or tremble with fear, at the old Russian Kremlin and its iron grip on its people's behaviour and expression of thought. Cricket is moving in that direction, and somehow the people have to find a way of reclaiming the game. Big business it may be, but never let that word "game" be forgotten. Real life can be hard enough without our beloved cricket being turned into nothing but a strictly controlled cash cow.

  • Sriram on October 7, 2013, 10:14 GMT

    A good article. Although sports cannot be treated like a corporate, the current sporting bodies are nothing but corporates with bottom line as thier best bet. If i have to compare the bailey incident to corporate world, no employer would accept one of his employee, imagine thier vice president (Bailey is in such position) to criticize the stock price or the strategy in public. So if Cricket bodies are run like corporates with bottom line as focus, they CA is not wrong. ON the contrary ESPNCricinfo too has thier say, although they won't accpet that they too are succumbing to popular news items rather than meaninful pieces, thus bring wrath upon themselves from both organizations and fans. In this case its a 50-50