Cricket could learn from the NFL and start thinking of itself as a collective

At the moment international cricket is a loose coalition of often conflicting self-interests. If that doesn't change, the future is grim

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
We speak of the balance in the calendar between formats, but really it's more about a balance between the big boards and the smaller ones  •  Steve Bardens/ICC/Getty Images

We speak of the balance in the calendar between formats, but really it's more about a balance between the big boards and the smaller ones  •  Steve Bardens/ICC/Getty Images

In 1960 a new commissioner of the NFL in America, Pete Rozelle, convinced the league's franchise owners to start thinking and acting collectively. Rozelle's argument was a simple but forceful one. The league's attractiveness and marketability was not dependent on one or two teams but on the competitiveness of the whole. By agreeing to work in the interests of the league rather than of their own individual franchises, they would all thrive in the long term. "League think", as this philosophy came to be known, was manifest mainly through a revenue-sharing agreement where the league negotiated their broadcast deals as one and shared the revenue equally among franchises.
The line from that moment to now, where the NFL is the most valuable commercial sporting property in the world, isn't straight. It has zig-zagged along the way. New franchise owners have agitated for a break from that philosophy, though it remains (in fact, in the process, a strict salary cap has also been added). Revenues for each franchise from local sponsorships and marketing deals have grown lucrative and are not shared, un-levelling the playing field somewhat. But the NFL sells itself as the most competitive league in the world with good reason, a league where anyone can win the Super Bowl: eight different Super Bowl champions in the last ten years is just one headline measure of that.
Even if it were not as successful or competitive, the underlying ethos has much to commend it. League think is premised on the irreducible truth that any operation that is controlled by the wealthy for the wealthy to get wealthier is a dysfunctional one. That operation will never grow or thrive, and it will never fix itself because it won't ever see the need to. The problem is not that the operation will fall apart, rather that it won't and will instead continue, pulling further away at each end until it is stretched all out of shape and meaning.
Trumpeting socialist ideals may come across as ideological point-scoring (how's the free market turning out for everyone these days?) but league think is exactly what international cricket has needed, maybe forever but especially so since 2014, when the Big Three began upending the game's financial pillar. Cricket was far from perfect then, but its imperfections have burgeoned since.
All the tensions we see and feel around us today - this shapeless, bloated Future Tours Programme, big names scrambling to secure their financial futures by signing on with leagues, star players walking away from formats because there's too much cricket, new leagues being forced into the calendar because it's never enough, unhappy players prevented from exercising their labour - all of these, in some way, stem from this inequitable core of the international game. It is the debris of a financial model that used to give every Full Member an equal share but now distributes the most money to those boards that need it the least, and the least to those who need it the most. It's the classic neoliberal misstep, to take something that is unequal and make it more unequal.
Cricket has never thought about itself as a collective. That is not how it works. It operates as a collection of self-interests that collide into each other and then the biggest (self-interest) wins. We speak constantly of this elusive balance in the calendar between formats but, really, the balance being sought is between the avarice of the big boards and the needs of the smaller ones. Every member looks out for its own markets, its own commercial interests, its own profits, its own fans, and it ends up with nobody looking out for the game at large.
If cricket is at all serious about sustaining the international game - and boards may say they want to, but their actions are at odds with that - then a more equitable distribution of ICC money must be the starting point. Currently the BCCI receives over three times more from the ICC commercial and broadcast revenues pot than nearly all the Full Members; the ECB is some distance behind in second place but still receives more money than every other member. This is the same BCCI that, two months ago, secured a US$6.2 billion deal for IPL rights, one of the most lucrative contracts in all sport; the same ECB that has, a month ago, bettered a broadcast deal that was already bringing it USD $1.4 billion over five years. Any so-called loss - or freeze - on earnings for the BCCI or the ECB are far outweighed by the potential gains for smaller boards, and thus for cricket as a whole, simply because the benefits of a relatively large increase in earnings for the latter are much greater than the marginal benefits of that increase for the former.
The ICC is now in the market for a rights deal for its next eight-year cycle from 2023. Expectations are that it will be considerably bigger than the last. With it, a new revenue distribution model will likely come up for negotiation, and a better game would be where the distribution goes back to the equal-share model pre-2015. Considerably more money for boards such as CWI, PCB, CSA, SLC and BCB means more money for its players, for development, more money for women's cricket, more money to subsidise Tests, more money to rationalise the calendar by not squeezing meaningless bilateral games in it, more money to not be so reliant on India tours. More money to make a more competitive, meaningful sport, not one dominated by three teams.
CWI, which felt these forces more acutely earlier than anyone, has been arguing this for years, as well as warning of precisely the moment at which we have arrived now. Never has it been more urgent to act.
There is no real argument against an equal share. Arguing that it's unworkable because the NFL is an intra-national league and cricket an international sport misses the point that cities - especially in a country as vast as the US - are as different and self-contained as countries. The pushes and pulls on each market that dictate what Full Members do can't be that far removed from those in cities with NFL franchises.
In any case, there is precedent in international sport, namely the near-identical issues faced by the International Olympic Association and its biggest member, the US Olympic body. The US was the biggest commercial market for the Olympics, and where the main broadcast money came from. Until 2012, the US used to receive a fifth of the global sponsorship revenue of the Olympics, and just over an eighth of its broadcast revenue. Members argued the arrangement wasn't fair, and after years of negotiations, an agreement was reached in 2012, in which the US' share of broadcast revenue was reduced to 7%, its marketing share cut in half, to 10%, and it had to contribute to the costs of staging the Olympics, recognising that all of that was necessary to benefit the wider Olympic community.
In both cases it is not so much the details that are as relevant as the thinking that drove them, the not-so-radical idea that the game is only as healthy as its weakest links, and that improving their status benefits the entire game. Yet such is the state of the cricket that, one paragraph into this article, most readers will have known not only where it was going but that what would be proposed was impossible. It has not even been a decade since the ICC moved away from equal shares of revenue, but already ICC officials and members know the BCCI is never going to go back to it. That genie's out of the bottle. They're not even going to agree to a slightly less inequitable model.
There are other ways to redress this imbalance. Those CWI arguments, presented in its "Economics of Cricket" paper at the 2018 ICC AGM continue to hang awkwardly but compellingly in the ether. Make leagues such as the IPL or others pay boards, or through the ICC, a flat fee for the right to a window in the calendar in which members stop bilateral cricket.
That could be an expansion or formalisation of the policy that IPL franchises have in place - and other boards have had in the past bilaterally for each other's leagues - where the leagues pay boards a fee for using those boards' players. Include both contracted and non-contracted cricketers because it is the boards who have invested in those players.
Or pool together the overseas broadcast rights for the World Test Championship (and the ODI Super League, had it continued) and distribute that money equally, in the common-sense recognition of the fact that it takes two sides to make a game. This was an idea that was once in active discussion at ICC meetings back in 2016. Nothing came of it.
But the biggest shot in the arm would be a comprehensive correction of the ICC's revenue model. Instead, what is likely to happen is a doubling down on the long-standing but faulty premise that the BCCI deserves the most money simply because India is a massive economy. Because this time the ICC, in a bid to maximise its revenues, has unpacked its bids so that it goes first, and separately, to the Indian market and then to the global market.
Which means that we will now have a black-and-white figure of what global events are worth to an Indian market. What is to stop the BCCI from saying that it should get the vast chunk, if not all, of that black-and-white figure? That it is a value from the India market and therefore must be for the India team that the BCCI provides for those global events?
Nothing, because that is precisely the logic cricket has been held hostage to for more than a decade now. The good news is that the inertia of cricket administrators means international cricket may not die anytime soon. The way things are, that's also the bad news.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo