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Can Indian fans ever expect a pleasant stadium experience?

There are glimmers of hope as the BCCI looks to address some of the most pressing spectator grievances ahead of the World Cup

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
25-Jul-2023
Fans took shelter in stairwells as the rain came down at the halfway stage of the game  Chennai Super Kings vs Gujarat Titans, IPL 2023 final, Ahmedabad, May 29, 2023

Fans took shelter on the stairwells and under the bleachers as the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad dripped and leaked around them during the rain-disrupted IPL final  •  Associated Press

Earlier this month, the ICC AGM ratified its new revenue model, which gives the BCCI nearly 40% of the ICC's net surplus earnings. In the last cycle the BCCI's share was a little under 25%, a compromise between what the Indian board wanted through the infamous Big Three "reforms" and what the ICC board agreed on with an overwhelming majority.
This year the new model met significantly less resistance than the Big Three proposal did. It is being seen as vindication of the BCCI's stance - a constant source of tension in the ICC - that it should get a bigger share by virtue of how much the Indian market contributes to the ICC's revenue.
The Indian market contributes so much because it can sell the product - live coverage of cricket matches - to a much bigger population than the rest of the cricket world combined. The BCCI has argued its case, and now managed to seemingly convince the rest of the world, for a larger share on the basis of the high numbers and the passion of Indian cricket fans.
Even as discussions about the revenue model were being held at ICC headquarters in May, a number of the Indian fans on whom the BCCI's empire is built were being baton-charged outside cricket stadiums and ticket collection points as they tried to get themselves tickets for IPL matches. Even those who had managed to buy the small percentage of tickets made available online needed to collect physical copies of them by queuing up. Those who wished to actually buy the tickets being sold offline turned up in larger numbers. In peak summer, with no shade, people waited hours for tickets that would run out in minutes.
There was no attempt made to separate the two kinds of customers. Naturally there was chaos. Out came the batons, a colonial gift the Indian police have refused to give up even after 75 years of independence. They must be an effective tool for crowd management given how commonly they are used by Indian police.
There was no one outside the ticket offices from the BCCI or the state association hosting the match. On the part of the ticketing partners, bouncers in dark safari suits - the kind you see in the security detail of important Indians - and blue lanyards were seen using force to manage the crowds as if they were not genuine customers but trespassers.
In Ahmedabad, ticket sales at the counters at the stadium started only one day before the final. Those who had booked tickets online received emails telling them they needed to pick their physical tickets up before match day; it would not be possible to collect them the day of the game. To create the perfect storm, it was decided that for this match there would be no other collection points in the city. Nightmarish stampede-like scenes ensued for both playoff games in Ahmedabad.
These were people who had paid or were willing to pay hefty sums of money for the tickets.

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Procuring a ticket is not the end of the ordeal. Getting to and from some of India's newer cricket stadiums is a trek. There is no reliable public transport and taxicabs are hard to come by. Once you get there, you become part of slowly moving queues early on match day because the gates won't open early and every single person has to be frisked so that they don't take in water bottles, coins, pens, pencils and erasers, to name only a few things, But the stadiums still somehow smell of chewing tobacco and the seats are stained with the red magic elixir that marks so many public spaces in India, to go with dust and bird droppings. It is a good job newspapers are allowed inside because you need them to cover the dirty seats with.
Most people who make it into the stadium choose not to drink water or eat the often unhygienically prepared food, not because it is exorbitantly priced, which it is, but because they don't want to be forced into a situation where they have to visit the dirty, unusable toilets. They can't even hope to go out and use the services elsewhere because the tickets allow only a single entry into the stadium.
During the final, when it rained in Ahmedabad, the rain water from the stands drained onto the people in the stands. By design, not malfunction. Water cascaded down stairwells. In that rain, without umbrellas (because umbrellas are not allowed in the ground), people had to make sure they kept the QR code on their paper tickets intact so they could come back for the reserve day.
Earlier this year, the BCCI moved a Border-Gavaskar Trophy Test from Dharamsala to Indore at the last minute because the outfield in Dharamsala was not ready. After weeks of uncertainty and panic among those who had booked their travel to, and stay in, Dharamsala, the BCCI's media release didn't express any regret to the fans. It didn't address the fans or consider the possibility of any inconvenience caused to them.

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Can there be a bigger show of power than being able to treat like dirt your biggest asset, your biggest bargaining chip? The fans are the reason you can win any argument at the ICC. They are the weight behind every threat you make of withdrawing from a tour. They are the reason the red carpet is rolled out for your team everywhere you go. And you don't even have to care about them.
How powerful you must feel knowing that even if you don't build it, they will come. Indian cricket grounds are like trains in the country: dirty, dangerous, and manned by rude people, but there is no alternative to them.
Nobody at the BCCI is tasked with enforcing the basic minimum requirements for the ticketing process and the fan experience at the stadiums. Someone who runs quality checks, who can appraise the venues. The BCCI is in charge of only the playing surface and the players and match officials' (PMO) areas in the grounds.
The BCCI is but a union of its state associations, for whose convenience it exists. It can't meddle with how the state units deal with match tickets or how fans at those associations' grounds are treated. The stadiums belong to the state units. There is no incentive to be fan-friendly. There is no deterrent for the absence of toilets or leaky roofs, because match hosting opportunities are granted by rotation. Unless you are Ahmedabad.
The match ticket is a powerful political and diplomatic tool. The state units keep their constituent clubs and other powers in their constituency happy with complimentary tickets. There is no way they will part with that source of power just to make sure more genuine fans come in. Gate money is loose change compared to what a free ticket handed out to the right person can buy.
When the BCCI made the last-minute call to move the Border-Gavaskar Trophy Test to Indore, the reason it offered was that the extreme weather in the hills had interfered with the preparation of the re-laid outfield. That is not something that happened overnight. It is highly unlikely the BCCI didn't know well in advance that the stadium in Dharamsala was in a race against time. If they knew, they found it too extreme a step to take the match away from a powerful member unit that was insistent on hosting it. On the off chance the BCCI didn't know, the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association didn't feel the need to apprise it of the readiness of the ground. Either way, the loser was the fan.
And at the end of the day, as it happened, if not in Dharamsala, in Indore, "they will come". In this market, the fan can't boycott stadiums in the hope that will bring about change, because there are tens of thousands of others willing to do anything even for this horrid experience.
During the 2012 IPL, the Chinnaswamy Stadium was stinkier than your usual cricket ground in India. That was because the Bangalore Municipal Corporation refused to collect garbage from the stadium. Turned out it was because the municipal authorities were told they would be given only a little more than half of the number of free passes they had asked for.
If the stink of the garbage didn't work, a threat to change the discounted rates at which the cricket association was paying tax surely did. The deputy mayor then told the Times of India that the Karnataka State Cricket Association was paying only 1% of the normal rate for advertisement tax and garbage collection. Not only does the fan lose out on tickets, the common taxpayer also pays for these tax discounts the BCCI and its state associations are afforded.
To be fair to the BCCI, though, working with local authorities in the various states is not easy. A lot of the rules that make the ground experience uncomfortable for people are imposed by the police. The police decide what people can take inside the stadium. If certain venues make you walk kilometres, it is because the police disallow vehicles beyond a point. It is the police who prohibit fans from going out of the stadium and coming back in again, presumably to make sure people don't throw their tickets over the fence to their friends, who can then use them to enter illegally.
The police, like any wing of Indian bureaucracy, doesn't take kindly to what it sees as meddling. So if the BCCI wants to use paperless tickets, it has to do so with the blessings of the police. And the last thing the police wants is change.
A big chunk of complimentary tickets has to go to the police, just like it has to go to the municipality and other departments that ensure the smooth running of any given match.
And part of blame for the lack of cleanliness in India's cricket grounds has to go to us. Our crowds - and indeed Pakistan's and Bangladesh's - are products of a patriarchal and casteist society, where cleaning up afterwards is always someone else's job. It is no wonder the janitors are overwhelmed when a big crowd turns up.

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Between the state associations and local authorities, some benefit of doubt can be afforded to the BCCI, especially to its straitjacketed professional wing. There are many things the board does right, despite similar challenges, including using its political clout to better work with government agencies. Remember the time the IPL was moved to South Africa at short notice in 2009? Or when the tournament was played in the UAE during Covid?
With little incentive to make the fans' experience more pleasant, with fans holding so little agency, it purely comes down to the board's will. If there is a will to go out of its way, the BCCI can do better by the fans.
Fortunately, in a World Cup year, there seems to be some will to make this happen. During this year's IPL, the BCCI carried out an internal (but independent) audit of the stadiums that will host World Cup games. ESPNcricinfo has learnt that outside of any structural changes that might be required, three common areas of improvement identified were accessibility, clean seats and clean toilets - and in some cases, more toilets. These are the urgent priorities for the board in the lead-up to the World Cup.
A sign that it is not all just talk is how paperless tickets were trialled during the IPL playoffs in Chennai. Fans in that city were extremely unhappy this year because of the low number of tickets put up for sale, despite all the stands in the ground being functional. The centralised ticketing process, especially the paperless tickets, came in for praise during the playoffs. A higher number of tickets than before went up for sale, and those who bought them online didn't have to queue for paper versions later.
The BCCI is not the only Asian board reluctant to go paperless. SLC and the BCB haven't tried it, and the PCB didn't stick with the experiment for long. However, the BCCI is believed to be satisfied with the trial and is likely to make a case for broader implementation to the board's apex council. Fears of chaos caused by the same ticket being presented multiple times for entry seem to be unfounded.
Don't get your hopes up for access for the differently abled yet, but the BCCI seems to be working on getting people into and out of the stadiums quicker. Cleaner seats and more and cleaner toilets is something they are hopeful of delivering. The spending on these projects has been centralised, which means it is down to one organisation's will and not that of ten state associations.
The proof of the pudding, though, is in the eating. That even these small improvements are going to be a tall order is clear from how tickets have not yet gone up for sale close to two months before the World Cup. Air tickets to and from the hosting cities, and hotel tariffs, have already skyrocketed. Still, there is cause for optimism that the BCCI is acknowledging fans' issues and looking to tangibly work at addressing them. Because if the BCCI does have the will to do something, it has all the tools to make it happen.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo