February 1, 2008

New story of cricket

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on February 1, 2008.

This weekend’s Superbowl — the championship game for America’s National Football League — is a prime example of the marriage of commercialisation and sports. On Sunday, millions of Americans will watch the New England Patriots play the New York Giants. But the sporting spectacle is in many ways the sideshow. Pop stars will perform during the half-time intermission, Hollywood actors and supermodels will grace the stands, and new advertising campaigns will be unveiled to televised audiences. So massive is the commercial appeal of the Superbowl, that a 30-second television advertisement during the game will cost an estimated $2.7 million, or Rs 10.6 crore.

The amount may appear staggering in India, where, despite the establishment of football and hockey leagues, professional club sports are still something of a novelty. But with the high-profile purchase of Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises for fantastic prices, there appears a good likelihood that Indian domestic cricket may tread a similar path to American, European or Japanese professional sports leagues.

The IPL represents the grandest, most ambitious experiment yet in professional sports in India. It is no surprise that the franchisees should include leading industrialists and Bollywood stars, all of whom are evidently banking on India’s insatiable appetite for cricket. But what investors may not have considered is the feeling of ownership or identity that must necessarily be instilled in supporters to ensure the enterprise’s long-term success. Kerry Packer’s experience with World Series Cricket notably demonstrated that a massive influx of investment alone was not enough to guarantee a sporting competition’s future.

Countries with longer and richer histories of professional club sports than India have witnessed the establishment of complex, profound relationships between clubs and their supporters, players, staffs and stadiums. In many cases, support for a team connotes not just parochial sentiments, but also political leanings (in Rome, Lazio supporters were traditionally right-wing while A.S. Roma’s leaned left), religious identities (Catholic Glaswegians support Celtic and their Protestant brethren Rangers), and ethnic pride (Catalans regularly rally around FC Barcelona and Basques frequently identify with Athletic Bilbao). Such sentiments appear even more irrational given that these clubs’ players are frequently foreign nationals. Yet such distinctions, developed over decades, provide the clubs with large, unwavering fan bases.

But instilling clubs with an identity is also not a sole guarantor of success. While last year’s initial Indian Cricket League (ICL) competition was perhaps unprecedented in enabling international stars to play alongside domestic Indian cricketers divided along regional lines, the single venue and short-term nature of the competition worked only to minimise the cultivation of potential supporters.

Assuming the IPL catches on with the masses — and there are few reasons to suggest that it should not — a whole other set of problems will almost certainly arise. Firstly, will the new professional league encroach heavily upon the international calendar? Football is perhaps the only sport to have regular, high-profile club and international competitions, but their coexistence is not always peaceful, as seen by recent disputes between powerful G-14 clubs on the one hand and FIFA and UEFA on the other.

Secondly, how will the IPL impact India’s extant domestic cricket infrastructure? Given the already dwindling crowds and inferior prize money, traditional contests such as the Ranji and Duleep Trophies may become increasingly irrelevant.

Thirdly, how will the IPL affect first-class competitions the world over? While first-class competitions such as the English County Championships or Pura Cup may be more immune, domestic limited over competitions may experience a decline. For example, the continuing appeal of the Stanford 20/20 competition in the West Indies could erode, despite its sizeable financial backing, as more and more West Indian stars are lured away to India.

And finally, how will the rival leagues, each imbued with star power, accommodate one another? Sports invariably lend themselves to monopolies. No one wants to see multiple leagues producing multiple champions. Success for the IPL may spell doom for the ICL, or at best, a merger or unifying competition may have to be eventually contemplated. The Superbowl originated in 1967 as a game between the champions of two different leagues: the American Football League and the National Football League. Similarly, the World Series, which determines Major League Baseball’s champion in North America, originated as a deciding competition between the winners of the National League and the American League.

The evolution of professional limited over leagues such as the ICL and IPL was perhaps inevitable given India’s enormous cricket market. In fact, one can say it was long overdue, delayed only by a reactionary and unimaginative cricket board, which was among the last to embrace Twenty20 cricket. The development of a world-class professional cricket league, attracting the best international talent, and having a large and passionate fan following, may continue to prove a gradual, tortuous process. However the landscape of domestic Indian and international club cricket will almost certainly experience significant upheaval.