February 11, 2014

Should cricket take a leaf out of rugby's book?

Cricket could do worse than take lessons from two other sports when it comes to distribution of revenues, growing the game, and drawing up fixture lists

In September 2011, New Zealand threatened to pull out of the 2015 Rugby World Cup unless the International Rugby Board (IRB) considered a financial model that would reimburse the sport's top nations for losses they incurred during a World Cup year. New Zealand rugby's boss, Steve Tew, explained his country, and other, mostly tier-one countries, incurred losses of up to US$13.2 million in a World Cup year because the international calendar was shortened and they were not allowed to associate with their own sponsors for the duration of the event.

"We cannot continue to sign for an event that costs us so much money," Tew said at the time. The IRB's initial response was defiance. Their CEO, Mike Miller, claimed the All Blacks could be replaced if they didn't make the trip - a statement as laughable as assuming world cricket could continue without India; so significant is New Zealand's presence and their market share.

New Zealand found allies in Australia and South Africa, who would also lose money and also threatened to pull out of the tournament. The southern hemisphere's big three knew that a World Cup would not be credible without them, and the IRB was forced to back-track.

It agreed to reimburse all ten tier-one countries almost $11.5 million each. The South African Rugby Union's press release explained this was with the aim to "promote stability for national unions". In addition to that, the four southern-hemisphere countries would share about $16.4 million for any further negative impact the tournament would have on their finances.

Sound familiar?

Cricket is not the only sport to be ruled by a triumvirate. Ironically, rugby - the game closest to cricket in terms of the number of countries that play at elite level - was also financially hamstrung by a trio of powerful countries.

But that is where the parallels end. Unlike cricket, apart from the concentration of power in the hands of three, rugby has a more even distribution of revenue, a greater appetite for growth, and a more systematic method of allocating fixtures among its members.

The IRB, which is based in Dublin, has 205 members on its books, compared to cricket's 106. While the ICC currently has a board of 16 members - a president, vice-president, CEO, the presidents of each of the ten Full Members and of three Associate members, the IRB's council has 27 members: a chairman, two seats for each of the eight founding countries - England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and France - and a seat each for Argentina, Canada, Italy and Japan. The remaining six members come from rugby's six world regions, which are roughly in line with the six continents. This regional representation is something cricket does not have.

The council meets twice a year and formulates the IRB's overall strategy, makes policy decisions, admits or expels members, and selects the hosts of the World Cups. To pass a decision usually requires a simple majority of the council, but changes to the IRB bye-laws or the laws of the game need the votes of two-thirds of the council.

A ten-person Executive Committee is derived from the IRB's council. It consists of the IRB chairman and vice-chairman, the CEO, and seven other members, who are elected by the council. The ExCo is responsible for the management and operation of the IRB. The ICC's new ExCo, in contrast, will consist of just five members.

Outside the boardroom, the IRB also appears more willing than cricket to spread its resources. Members are divided into three tiers according to who they compete against. There are ten tier-one countries, eight in tier two, and the remainder are in tier three.

At the 2015 World Cup, the IRB will make a scheduling change so as to give the minnows a week's break between matches, rather than just the three days most of them have had at previous World Cups

The IRB's tier-one members are divided into six northern-hemisphere countries and four southern. The former compete in the Six Nations, and the latter in the Rugby Championship, both annual competitions. Three southern-hemisphere countries, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, are also involved in a separate company called SANZAR, which oversees the Super Rugby competition, played between franchises in the three countries.

These ten tier-one countries also play each other during the year, during two windows. Tours into the southern hemisphere take place around June, while visits to the northern hemisphere happen in November and December. Not all countries play each other every year but generally a tour consists of three matches against three countries.

In September 2012, the IRB announced a series of matches in the November block which increased the participation of tier-two and -three sides. The International Rugby Series was part of a plan to ensure the smaller countries, or "Strategic Investment Unions", such as Samoa, Romania, Uruguay and Portugal, are also in action and playing against tier-one countries.

The IRB illustrates its commitment to growing the game in different countries through its World Cup formula. The World Cup is a 20-team event in which countries are divided into four pools of five teams each. The quarter-finalists all automatically qualify for the next World Cup, but there are incentives for the other teams in each group too, because the ones that finish third also go through to the next tournament.

An additional step has also been taken to ensure the smaller teams have better chances against the big boys. At the 2015 World Cup, the IRB will make a scheduling change so as to give the minnows a week's break between matches, rather than just the three days most of them have had at previous World Cups. While the high-profile teams tended to play on weekends only, the little guys played mid-week and on the weekend, which, many said, affected their performance.

While rugby has shown more willingness to expand than cricket, ultimately football remains the most global game. Barriers to entry are lower than in other sports, which has allowed it to maintain a certain equality in areas like membership and fixtures - if not money.

FIFA has 209 members but there is a significant difference in the way it is organised when compared to cricket and rugby. Every member has a vote on the FIFA Congress, football's parliament, "regardless of size or footballing strength". The Congress meets once every year and discusses amendments to statutes, approves the financials, elects a president (every four years), and admits or expels members. In order to make changes to statutes, FIFA requires a three-quarter majority.

Other decision-making is left in the hands of the Executive Committee, which meets twice a year. This body consists of the FIFA president, eight vice-presidents from different regions, and 16 elected members from the Congress. The representation is not equal across the world's territories. Europe has two vice-presidents and five members on the ExCo, Africa and Asia have a vice-president and three members each, South America and North and Central America have a vice-president and two members, and Oceania only has one vice-president. There is also a separate vice-president for the English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh football associations.

Although FIFA's governance structure sounds the most democratic of the lot, it is open to alliances forming, cliques voting in a certain way (Africa is well-known for supporting president Sepp Blatter as a bloc, for example), and was recently shrouded in controversy over votes for the 2022 World Cup. Two ExCo members were suspended for three years over allegations of corruption when it emerged they were willing to accept money in order to influence the ballot.

Power lines at FIFA can be murky but fixture allocation is not. FIFA's calendar is decided on years in advance and usually for a significant period of time. The current cycle runs from August 2008 to the end of 2014. The schedule works on a two-year basis, in the course of which all FIFA members play 19 matches each. The dates set aside include seven blocks of double dates - in which two games can be played in the time allotted - and five single days.

Recently FIFA reworked its calendar to lessen the load on players slightly. The 2014-18 version makes provision for nine double dates every two years, which means every team plays 18 matches. This does not include fixtures in a World Cup or a continental tournament such as the European Championship.

On the days FIFA has identified as international windows, clubs are obliged to release players to represent their countries. Players must be released for nine days, from the Monday of one week to the Wednesday of the next. With cricket's new structure likely to see more players from England, in particular, play in the IPL, something like the FIFA approach could be a lesson to cricket.

Currently the IPL overlaps with various other international fixtures, particularly ones involving England, which means players could be unavailable for either club or country, thus lessening the value of both sets of games. Should the ICC, like FIFA, make it obligatory for clubs (or countries) to release players at certain times and have a standard number of matches each international team should play, they could ensure the club-versus-country debate does not become another cricketing headache. As we have discovered, they have enough of those already.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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