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

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