The cricket World Cup—the 50-over version—is almost upon us, but the cricket marketplace has changed since the last World Cup in the West Indies in 2007.
A new product, the T20 format, has emerged (or become more mainstream) and is offering stiff competition to the two existing products— Test cricket and the 50-over one-day internationals (ODIs).
As the World Cup begins, the question topmost on the minds of pundits is whether ODIs are about to be displaced by T20s. Questions are also being asked about the relevance of the ODI World Cup with the T20 World Cup being played every two years. In a series of articles, we explore this fundamental question from an economic perspective. Along the way, we will pose several related questions and propound theories that can be empirically tested.
Economic entertainment: A file photo of a Twenty20 World Cup match between India and West Indies.
There are three different formats of cricket that are currently being played at the international level. These formats have evolved over the last century. Before one can answer the question about which of these formats will survive in the future, it is important to understand how and why these formats might have come into being.
There are two key factors that determine the specific format of a sport. Firstly, the game should be structured in a way that allows the players or teams to exhibit their true potential so that the best player or team wins. Secondly, the format should be such that it makes economic sense for the fans to spend time watching the game.
Who is the winner?
The law of large numbers would suggest that the superiority of a team or player will be revealed as the number of rounds the participants of a contest play increases; any abnormally poor or superior play will not hold over time.
This leads us to the question about the optimal length of a cricket match: Should a cricket Test match be played over seven days rather than five and should it have three innings instead of two? For instance, in baseball, which is similar to cricket in more ways than one, the winner is determined based on nine innings; in tennis the winners are determined on a best-of-five or best-of-three basis.
Still, it isn’t clear how one can accurately measure the number of rounds required for a clear superiority to be exhibited by one side (or player).
Therefore, the determination of five days and two innings in a cricket Test match is based not only on the number of rounds required to determine the true winner but also on factors such as the physical limits of the players to perform, and the duration of the interest of the audience. In fact, between 1929 and 1939 timeless Tests—Test matches where there was no restriction on the number of days for which the match could be played—were played. Even though a clear winner emerged at the end of a timeless Test match, this format was abandoned for the obvious reason that it would be hard to keep audience interest alive if a match dragged on indefinitely. How many tennis fans would be willing to watch tennis matches if there are no tie-breakers and scores such as 70-68 (the fifth set score in the Isner-Mahut match in the 2010 Wimbledon Championships) could be a possibility in every set played.
What is the opportunity cost?
With sports becoming a profession rather than a pastime, there is now an economic dimension to devising game formats over and beyond the objective of revealing the best player or team. In the context of cricket, ODIs were a product innovation of sorts. The contest design was different (from the Test match format) with only one inning per team and a fixed maximum number of overs per innings.
There is clearly an economic rationale for spreading a match over just one day. Compressing the game so that the audience spends a day rather than five days to watch the contest reduces their opportunity cost (the implicit price of watching the match, such as wages lost by watching the match instead of working, value of other entertainment foregone to watch the match, and other such) and thereby increases demand. The introduction and popularity of day-night ODI matches, where one loses only half a workday to watch the game can again be explained in terms of this economic rationale.
The 20-over-per-side T20 format is a logical extension of the one-day format. A fan only needs to spend an evening—the time he/she would spend watching television or a movie or any other entertainment is, therefore, the opportunity cost—to watch a game of cricket. The three-and-a-half-hour sporting entertainment package has been perfected by professional sporting leagues in the US, and cricket has mimicked this with the T20 format.
Why did it take so long to evolve?
Cricket is unique in the sense that the game started with a format that was very long in comparison to other international sports. A football match for instance, is played over two 45-minute halves and this format has remained the same for a very long time. It has taken cricket almost 200 years to evolve twice: the one-day format in the early 1970s and the T20 format after a gap of more than 30 years.
Why did it take so long for cricket to evolve and develop new game formats? One reason is institutional. That the institutions running the game were rigid and had a firm grip on the game is one reason. The other is entrepreneurial: it required the interventions of entrepreneurs—Kerry Packer and Channel Nine, Zee TV and the Indian Cricket League, Lalit Modi and the Indian Premier League—who looked at the game from a completely commercial angle and exploited the latent demand for shorter and more entertaining formats of the game that catered to a wider fan base.
What is the road ahead?
When one-day matches came into being, the same players played in both the five-day Test matches and one-day matches as well. The format had changed but it took a while before game strategies, including team selection, changed. Specialization happened over time and a new breed of cricket players who were more suited to the one-day format evolved. These days, the one-day teams are markedly different from the Test sides and in some cases even have different captains for each format of the game.
Cricket teams have learnt from their evolutional experience of Test cricket to one-day matches, and the evolution from ODIs to T20s has been fairly seamless. It is evident that the skill sets required and game strategies for the T20 format are different from the ODI format.
It is also clear that the entertainment provided by each of the three formats is quite different. But which of these formats will remain commercially viable in the long run? The answer to this question depends on both supply—the time available in the international and domestic cricket calendar and the scheduling decisions of the cricket boards—and demand, the size of the fan base and profile of customers by format, and the degree of substitutability of demand across formats.
Ram Tamara is director, Nathan Economic Consulting India Pvt. Ltd, the Indian arm of Nathan Associates Inc., a firm that specialises in patent, competition, and sports economics.
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