Over the past couple of weeks, I have been bombarded with queries and comments on my Twitter account (@cricketwallah) of similar intensity, but diverse sentiment. A whole swarm of people believed that cricket—more particularly the Indian Premier League (IPL)—was a sell-out to money power; an almost equal number felt that hockey—and other Indian sports—needed hard sell to make money and, thereby, become more vibrant and viable. Somewhere in there lies both the problem and the panacea for Indian sport.
For some reason, monetization of sport remains a lingering dilemma in India when the message from the rest of the world comes through loud and clear. A whole section of people still believes that making money from sport is unethical. But it is also abundantly clear that nowhere in the world has sport grown without money. In India too, to be or not to be is the question still.
I will risk the wrath of the sceptics and the old world oracles to say that there is much to be learnt from the IPL in how to create an event that incorporates the monetization aspect as an imperative. Without that, sustainable growth would be impossible, as the state of hockey (indeed most other sports played in India) suggests. As the economy becomes freer, as India gets integrated further into the globalized world, government largesse and private “dole” will not only become less and less but also counterproductive. At best, this may help a sport barely survive, but it cannot promote excellence.
In league: Owners such as (from left) Shilpa Shetty, Preity Zinta and Shah Rukh Khan bring in money and glamour to the IPL; and (below) members of the IPL team Kings XI Punjab celebrating during a game in the first season of IPL.
For sustainability and excellence to be in step, sports will have to be developed and maintained as sound business models, which means the strategies for monetization will have to be as robust and focused as they should be on talent spotting, training, coaching, sports medicine, et al, for producing champions. This interdependency needs to be understood, accepted and then firmly established for India to push ahead strongly as a sporting nation.
So let me come back to the IPL, which begins its third season on Friday. Already, it is valued at $4.2 billion (Rs19,068 crore) and rated No. 6 among the top sports properties in the world. This is phenomenal growth in just two seasons: What was perceived as puerile tamasha (drama) two seasons ago has become a cash cow that is redefining not just the future of cricket, but also Indian sport.
It must seem ironic now that India was the last country to “buy in” to the Twenty20 (T20) game. Indeed, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was the last cricket board to agree to play in the inaugural World Championship in 2007, and the team which went to South Africa was then put together with a certain amount of disdain and disinterest.
It is now a piece of cricket lore, of course, that M.S. Dhoni’s side went on to win that tournament, and the cricket world has not remained the same since.
Yet it was the IPL which established the scope and scale of T20 cricket, and the impact it would have on the sport both in terms of finances and technique. A heady mix of cricket, showbiz and big biz compelled enormous public and media attention, and by the time the first season had ended, the entire country was hooked.
The two big concerns about the IPL were about its business model, and the destructive effect so much T20 cricket would have on “technique”, which could then mar the other two formats. But these fears seem unfounded. If anything, the pace of play has increased even in Tests and One Day Internationals (ODIs). The tenor of T20 is vastly different from Tests, and that should be respected. The magic of Tests is unmatchable in its own way. But players today have become bolder, cannier, fitter, more driven to provide entertainment even in Tests.
Like one-day cricket before it, T20 has added to, not subtracted from, the five-day game.
The money aspect brooks lesser debate. The IPL was an outright winner from Day 1. The base price for a new team when the IPL expands in 2011 is now being pegged at $225 million and if there have been some hiccups along the way the last week as tenders for auctioning the new teams were cancelled, the fact is that the original investors already stand to make a 100% profit from the money they paid in 2008. Unless there is some diabolical mess-up, the league can only get richer.
Perhaps most significantly, the IPL has opened up opportunities for more cricketers than were ever imagined even five years ago. The base number of players playing top-class competition and earning whopping salaries has gone up manifold. Cricket, in the number of players and the money they earn, has grown exponentially, with India now clearly the leader.
There are periodic clarion calls still for the IPL (and by extension T20) to be reined in so that Test cricket is not wiped out. But all things considered, it is this format which might actually provide the wherewithal to salvage the five-day game. More importantly, the past couple of seasons have shown that all three formats of the game can coexist with meticulous planning of the itinerary—and if plain greed does not overrun good sense.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org