Forget going global. Cricket, India’s national pastime, is suddenly looking inward.
The governing body of cricket is renewing efforts and investments in domestic matches, fearful that neglect could cause it to lose much-needed viewers and sponsors; also, fewer international matches are being scheduled. Local leagues are undergoing makeovers through slick television coverage and participation of star players. And, in the most recent announcement, Zee TV plans to launch a domestic cricket league with televised matches later this year.
In the wake of coach Greg Chappell’s resignation on 4 April 2007, the flurry of measures was welcomed by cricket observers and stakeholders, who say India has lacked a clear cricket strategy and needs to create one now as it reviews the team’s early, unexpected exit from the ICC World Cup. Chappell e-mailed the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) saying he did not want to renew his contract for “family and personal reasons.” The board meets on 6 and 7 April to discuss the sport’s future.
“Just because cricket has done so well historically in India is no reason to take your audience for granted,” said Peter Hutton, executive director of broadcaster Ten Sports in Dubai. “Indian cricket needs to ensure that full crowds and the conveyor belt of talent are encouraged to grow.”
That talent includes local stars, for example. A contract signed with Nimbus Communications Ltd, the Mumbai-based media and entertainment company that paid $612 million (Rs2,6316 crore) for telecast rights to all international and first-class matches played in the country, stipulates multi-camera coverage of domestic championships such as the Ranji Trophy and Deodhar Trophy in order to keep viewer interest alive.
BCCI has also begun reducing the number of international matches India will play. This ensures the availability of stars such as Sachin Tendulkar—time-tested crowd pullers—for domestic meets and garner sponsor interest.
The board’s fear that interest in cricket could wane is warranted, especially after India’s World Cup humiliation and the nation’s disillusionment with the sport. Television channels have been flooded with angry messages from fans—in all languages. Protesters have torched posters and effigies of the Indian cricket team in city after city, with fans in Ranchi vandalising wicket-keeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s semi-constructed house.
And further threatening BCCI, the Essel Group, which owns Zee television network, just announced its plans to form a parallel cricket league.
Chairman Subhash Chandra says the league wants to create a talent pool of cricketers, but it is already being viewed as a second World Series—the rebel league formed in the 1970s by Australian television magnate Kerry Packer, which had poached players from most cricketing nations.
BCCI vice-president Lalit Modi said he didn’t see Chandra’s league as a threat. To him, he said, the “real” issue was reviving interest in cricket.
“The question is, how do we make people go to domestic matches?” Modi asked. “If a long-term strategy is not in place, cricket could lose out to other sports such as football.”
Modi and the board have sought the advice of Michael Payne, who until 2004 headed the marketing and broadcasting operations of the International Olympic Committee; currently, Payne advises Formula One Management, the London company that controls the premier motor racing event across the world.
In an interview from his base in Switzerland, Payne said cricket in India is more powerful than the US-based National Basketball Association, National Football League and the National Hockey League put together. “But only an arrogant leader will say, ‘I am on top of the tree, I don’t need to chase sponsors, they will automatically come to me,’” he said.
Payne admitted Cricket India, as a brand, had taken a beating following the national team’s exit from the World Cup, and called for proper brand management to take it back to a strong position. He would not comment on the advice he has given BCCI.
BCCI’s Modi said brand management, apart from better coverage and stars’ participation, involves keeping sponsors happy, such as special areas at stadiums. The board also wants to tap the hospitality sector during tournaments.
Not everyone is convinced by the board looking inward. Rohit Gupta, executive vice-president of Sony Entertainment Television, which holds the telecast rights to the ongoing Cricket World Cup in India, said Tedulkar and Sourav Ganguly together couldn’t draw higher viewership during the recent Ranji Trophy final between Mumbai and Bengal. His argument: fans are focused on the Indian team as a whole, nothing else matters.
This can be solved through better coverage, said Shashi Kalathil, chief executive of Neo Sports, the television arm of Nimbus Communication.
When he was younger, Kalathil recalled watching international cricket in the 1970s on the state-owned television network Doordarshan. With its two-camera coverage and dowdy commentary, Kalathil said he often got so bored, he turned the audio off. Today, he said, such coverage is out of question.
Neo Sports uses 15 cameras and expert commentators for domestic matches. It’s the only way to revive local leagues, Kalathil said.