Brian Lara and his team have been caught in the crossfire of the clash between two corporates © Getty Images
It is an impasse as perplexing in its origin as it is in its current outcome. At issue now is the inability of the West Indies Cricket Board and the West Indies Players' Association to reach an agreement in the terms of the contract offered to the cricketers. Its genesis, however, has more to do with corporate telecom giants hurling boulders at each other whilst the naive ship, the WICB, and its hapless passengers, the players' association, try to float through the barrage.
The telecom rivals, Cable & Wireless - a former sponsor of the West Indian side - and Digicel - the new sponsor - are engaged in bitter turf battles that have nothing to do with cricket, but which have certainly forced the rigid stances of the two parties.
Earlier this month the Barbados Fair Trading Commission said that Cable & Wireless had "abused its position in the wholesale international voice telephony market, by engaging in the practice of price squeezing to the harm of its downstream competitors", and ordered Cable & Wireless to refund Digicel. Cable & Wireless promptly appealed the decision, also seeking a stay until the hearing of the appeal.
Digicel entered the regional market in 2001, and operates in seven countries, with its headquarters in Jamaica. It has aggressively pursued market share, with promotional offers and sponsorships of major sports like cricket, football and the Special Olympics. In July 2004, Digicel signed a five-year US$20million sponsorship deal with the WICB in London, becoming the official sponsors for the Test and one-day teams, event sponsors for all home and away Tests and ODIs played by West Indies (a first for the board, since Cable & Wireless only sponsored home matches), and the official mobile and communications provider for the WICB.
Two months earlier Cable & Wireless had signed up to become one of the official sponsors of the World Cup in 2007. The company had re-directed its strategic positioning after its US$10million offer over three years did not find as much favour as Digicel's US$20million promise. As an official sponsor of the World Cup, Cable & Wireless assured itself of continued regional presence in cricket. Following its individual endorsement contract with Brian Lara in 2003, it signed Ramnaresh Sarwan, Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Omari Banks, Fidel Edwards, Ravi Rampaul and Dwayne Smith.
Generally, while a sponsorship contract like Digicel's covers the team, unless there are specific terms, it does not include individuals, who have the right to negotiate their own terms for use of their personal image and intellectual property. That is why in advertising, for example, players would be shown in groups of four or more, with no obvious predominance of any one player.
A few weeks ago, during negotiations over retainer contracts, the WICB offered to buy out any contracts the players had which would be in conflict with their new sponsorship, and WIPA had not objected. But that offer has been replaced by one, according to WIPA, that seeks to have the players end their contracts for free or face non-selection.
The WICB has now found itself in a curious position. Obviously there was no support from Digicel for the board's initial offer of a buyout. But by insisting that the players break their individual contracts, which had been signed with the WICB's knowledge, it is also placing itself at odds with one of its official sponsors for the World Cup. The ongoing impasse could also force the ICC to ask questions about the manner in which the World Cup will be organised, and might even make it look at an alternate venue. The Cable & Wireless contract is with the CWC WI 2007 Inc., the organising body of the World Cup, but that is a fully owned subsidiary of the WICB, and the contract for hosting the World Cup lies between the WICB and the ICC.
WIPA issued a statement refusing to end their personal deals, saying that this constituted a restriction of the players' rights to practice their trade. "WIPA's position is that the board wants to unilaterally assume indefinite ownership of the players' endorsement rights and is effectively threatening to ban them from working (participating in the tour) if the players do not immediately concede." The WICB responded by saying that it "has never sought to assume ownership of the individual rights of the players or requested them to forego these rights." Also, while the WICB may be contemplating compiling a substitute team, they should consider that the WIPA represents under-19, first-class and international players, the bulk of their possibilities.
The question is this: has the WICB sold rights to Digicel that it cannot deliver? What exactly is included in the Digicel package is anybody's guess. And while the arguments go on about the principles involved, there might yet be another twist in the tale. Since Digicel has signed a contract that is not restricted to home matches, and has an all-year effect, the players still individually contracted to Cable & Wireless might find themselves restricted by clauses which ask them to limit their performance of these contracts to time periods surrounding matches. So, if it is normal to ask that they hold off for two weeks say, before and after a sponsored event, they might find that Digicel's year-round presence could make it difficult for them to fulfil their individual contracts.