David Richardson's defence of a ten-team World Cup is now largely remembered for his claim that it would be better for having more "competitive" matches. But he also made a defence on business grounds, highlighting the need for the ICC to earn revenue that could be spent on development.
Many people would argue that money should not be the primary consideration, particularly when the largest share of that revenue will be directed towards those members who need it least. But let's set aside sporting ideals for a moment, and judge the ICC against business ideals instead.
The ICC annual reports detail the profits made on various global events. The World T20 was a big unknown when the previous rights were being negotiated, but quickly became a key product, bringing in US$78m in 2009, $105m in 2010, $129m in 2012 and approximately $150m in 2014. Then the ICC decided to have it only every four years. There is no replacement, nor is there any indication that a four-year cycle will increase the rights value. There are (perhaps) a few savings in qualification costs, but the last World T20 qualifiers had a broadcast partner and made a small profit. In short: the ICC decided to forego about $300-400m in revenue over the eight-year cycle to make the World T20 a four-year event, starting in 2016.
The choice of 2016 was in itself interesting. The ICC commissioned a report to examine the costs and benefits of participating in the Olympic games. They measured the costs assiduously, noting both that England would be disadvantaged - though they exaggerated the degree to a ludicrous extent, claiming a potential loss of 160m for what amounts to a two-week gap in their schedule - and that the $85.5m in revenue distribution from the World T20 was not offset by the $14m cricket would receive from the International Olympic Committee. But this was predicated on there being two World T20 tournaments in a four-year cycle and that one would conflict with the Olympic tournament. Otherwise, the ICC was merely giving up the chance to get an IOC distribution. Nevertheless, through a miracle of board incompetence, the ICC achieved both aims: stifling any opportunity to promote cricket through the Olympic movement, and losing out on revenue from the World T20.
The $14m figure was, nevertheless, also a gross under-valuation. National Olympic committees routinely give large funding grants to Olympic sports, in the hope of qualifying, or achieving a medal. And for western nations these are not small amounts. Germany spends approximately $143m a year on Olympic sports. Numbers ten times what the ICC currently gives to Associate nations are routine. In the book Second XI, Sahil Dutta reported the figure as $20m from various bodies in China, even before other benefits from exposure and programmes are included. Even a low-ball figure of $30m in government grants per year, spread across the ICC membership, would earn similar amounts to the World T20 over the revenue cycle, without any of the costs.
On the other hand, the ECB will host India for five Tests, five ODIs and a T20 in 2018, in addition to five ODIs and a T20 with Australia. How fortunate for them that the World T20 is no longer in potential conflict with their most lucrative tour.
The cricket World Cup consists of 49 matches, around 400 hours of programming, and earns somewhat more than USD$500m in television revenue. The graph above shows the ending times (more or less) for each day of the World Cup (Australian Eastern Standard Time). Notice that there are gaps; there are also gaps in the mornings of most days - though mornings have half the viewers of the evening. All told, there are some 50 hours of Australian prime time / Indian afternoon with no cricket being played, and by extension, no revenue being earned.
The consequences of this are two-fold. The first is that it stalls momentum in the tournament. Secondly, while having one game per day ensures matches aren't competing with each other for a TV audience, the cost of putting on a match is a long way below the value of that match to broadcasters, even when played by a pair of Associate teams. The marginal value of extra matches is lower, but unlike a broadcaster, the ICC should not be interested in marginal value but in total revenue. When 70% of that audience is (largely) interested in six specific matches, the others are gravy.
There is ample slack in the scheduling to include more teams and more matches. Having multiple matches ensures that an early finish, or a dud game, allows the viewers other options. In a world of multiple television channels, it would be easy to add an extra $20-30m to the rights value of the World Cup. Instead, we are treated to empty, drawn-out schedules and the sense of a tournament grinding instead of accelerating to a conclusion.
It is taken as an article of faith that because India will play at least nine matches in the next World Cup, the ICC will earn more from the tournament than from a tournament with more knockouts but potentially fewer Indian matches.
It may therefore come as a surprise that Indian fans, loyal as they are, also happen to like matches with meaning and context. The TV ratings for 2007 and 2011 are telling in this respect. The reported TVR figures for previous World Cups are somewhat inconsistent but the following figures seem broadly correct:
The final column estimates the increase in audience for each type of match, from a six-fold increase for Indian matches, to a four-fold increase for a final. There is a somewhat significant multiplier for matches against Pakistan as well. The important point to note is the extra value of knockout games, or in other words, "meaningful games".
If we calculate the multiple of extra fans (or ratings relative to a base game - RRB) we can make some rough calculations about the size of the Indian TV audience for each format (assuming India makes the quarter-finals but no better). The 2007 tournament had two semi-finals and a final (an RRB of 8), but it was expected that India would play nine matches (as much as in 2019) - 54 RRB. Including the 39 matches between other sides, the total RRB for the tournament would have been 101. Instead, India played just three games, and there were 45 matches without them, dropping the combined RRB to around 71.
For broadcasters in India, and therefore more than a little dependent on how India performs: you win some, you lose some. The losses suffered when India exited early in 2007 were made up in their run to the final in 2011. The expected RRB in 2011 was for six India matches plus a quarter-final (45 RRB), six other knockout matches (12.5 RRB), and 36 other group matches. A small reduction on the previous tournament to 92.5 RRB, but a significantly lower risk of an early exit. As it happened, the presence of the home team in the semi-final and final brought an RRB of 122.5, far exceeding expectations.
The proposed tournament for 2019 further trades risk for more India matches, adding three more in the group stage (54 RRB) to 36 other group matches, a semi-final and final. But the increase in RRB without the quarter-final knockouts adds to only 98 RRB, a mere 6% increase over the more inclusive 14-team format. The added value of the long round-robin is not found in the TV figures. Knockouts rate better (recalling too, that only India is being considered, and therefore only two-thirds of the total market). More matches can make up the difference, and there is plenty of room for more.
And this excludes both the added value of a well-produced and therefore more marketable format, and the promotion of the sport in markets that find themselves with a local representative team. While my preferred 20-team format is worth less than the present format (87.5 RRB) it is not a significant difference (also 6%). The format for FIFA's 32-team World Cup, while probably a step too far for cricket, would make up the difference by having 63 matches and an RRB of 96.5, even if India made an (unlikely) exit in the round of 16. While a 25-team World Cup, as proposed by Sachin Tendulkar, with a two-group, ten-team second round, then semi-finals, would be long (some 73 matches) but have an RRB of 118.
The ICC can do better. Adding 5-10% to the value of a tournament because Indian matches are guaranteed to rate better in their biggest market, while ignoring the significant value of meaningful matches is a pathetic short-term return for such a considerable long-term loss. Cricket cannot expect to expand into new markets by shrinking the World Cup. The next cricket World Cup will last a long time but have fewer matches than it might, leaving all those supposed gains on the table.
Whatever value there is to be had in a ten-team tournament is minor compared with the losses suffered by reducing the number of World T20 tournaments, or to the smaller members, by not pursuing the Olympic dream - a dream the IOC would consider favourably, given their weakness in the subcontinental market. In all four cases, the decision shamelessly favours the interests of the ECB. Their logistical costs for hosting the World Cup in 2019 are reduced, and there are no conflicts with their international schedule. But it comes at an enormous loss for everyone else. Coupled with the redirection of profits into the coffers of the Big Three, the decision to put the ECB's schedule over the interests of every other member ought to be called out and examined.