Facing flak, BCCI to upgrade its stadia

Facing flak, BCCI to upgrade its stadia

At 4am on a February morning in 1999, a serpentine queue grew by the minute outside Eden Gardens in Kolkata. On the fourth day of the India Pakistan cricket match in the inaugural Asian Test championships, victory for the hosts seemed imminent.

The crowd grew restive, then unruly. Soon, mounted police began to charge.

“It was chaos, people screaming, the cops hitting us with batons, the horses galloping through the running masses," recalls Palash Banerjee, then a 20-year-old who left home at 3am that winter morning hoping to buy a ticket.

While that was nearly eight years ago, the stadium experience has only deteriorated for fans, especially Indian cricket fans. And it isn’t just because of television, which has helped move much of the worship of cricket indoors.

Today, even after the lucky fans secure coveted tickets, they must contend with stale food, dirty bathrooms—and long queues for both. Seating in stadia such as the Eden (other than Block 13, which has the best view of the pitch) and Patna’s Moin-ul-Haq have little legroom.

Facing criticism that it has focused too much on monetizing cricket through television and too little on the game itself, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is working with state authorities across the country to enhance live viewing of matches.

By 2011, the year India jointly hosts the ICC ( International Cricket Council) World Cup with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Indian stadia will match international standards, BCCI vice-president Lalit Modi says. Insisting that infrastructure can’t be improved overnight, he says the board plans to release Rs3,000-4,000 crore to state associations over the next three-four years to upgrade the stadia.

In many ways, BCCI has no choice; ICC, the sport’s global administrator, outlines strict standards for fields and fans, including for parking lots and corporate boxes. State associations also have little choice; after last week’s India-Pakistan match on a field in Guwahati used for other sports, cricket officials are swearing off multi-purpose pitches and insisting that affiliated associations must have their own dedicated stadia—and only for cricket.

And even before Thursday’s one-day cricket match, the Gwalior Division Cricket Association scrambled to fix the Captain Roop Singh stadium—originally a hockey stadium converted to cricket in the 1980s—after the collapse of wooden planks in a gallery. Officials also had to deal with fake tickets, a fairly common problem with international cricket matches in India.

Indeed, the main obstacle to watching Indian cricket in stadia is the paucity of tickets. Clubs affiliated to the associations are allotted sizeable numbers of tickets, which are frequently routed to fans through scalpers at inflated prices; official outlets then grapple to meet demand that exceeds supply. Fans are also unhappy. “Administrators don’t care about the paying public anymore," says Banerjee, who recalls clutching his father’s shirt-tails, taking lunch hampers and fruit juice, to watch cricket matches as a boy at Eden Gardens.

Once BCCI’s bigger plans are implemented and infrastructure upgraded, Modi promises Indians will enjoy the same as fans in Australia or South Africa. “We’ll have the same sort of experience you see anywhere in the world, in terms of hospitality, food facilities, press box... There will be different pricing for different types of people," he says.

“Wankhede stadium (in Mumbai) is going to be totally redone for the World Cup, Mohali is being totally redone, Jaipur is being totally redone, so are the other centres... Hyderabad is under construction, Chennai is under construction and renovation, Calcutta is looking at a new stadium in Salt Lake," Modi lists out.

BCCI and the state associations have relied on market research for the stadia plans, Modi says. “You take different types of expectations that the crowds have, you also take in the international experience, and the state associations are hiring the best architects now."

The Karnataka state association, says assistant secretary (cricket) Sanjay Desai, has engaged an architect to prepare the “master plan" to upgrade Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium’s capacity from 40,000 to 70,000, and add other “modern facilities". The first phase is estimated at Rs12 crore, but he says later phases will cost “much, much more".

New Delhi cricket officials, seeing spectators dwindle at the Feroze Shah Kotla stadium, have halved prices of daily tickets to Rs40 ahead of the first Test match against Pakistan on 22 November. Other category tickets have similarly become cheaper, an experiment to bring the crowds back to the stadium. Delhi association member executive Ravi Jain says the just completed stadium has 37 corporate boxes—all sold out. Floodlights are to be installed next year.

At Uppal in Hyderabad, local administrators started building a brand new stadium in 2003 at an estimated cost of Rs45 crore. “It was jungle land when we began," said former India team member and now Hyderabad association secretary Shivlal Yadav. “You should see it... We’ll complete in another six months."

The 42,000-capacity stadium will be upgraded to seat 55,000 people; a “moat" separates the playing arena from the stands, the open space under the stands has been turned into a six-metre-wide walkway, two parking lots have come up around the stadium, and, Yadav proudly points out, spectators haven’t been fenced off. During the off season, the empty space outside the stadium is rented out for functions such as marriage receptions.

The Hyderabad association raised money through three sources—BCCI, which allocated it Rs25 crore, of which Rs5 crore remains to be released, the corporate sector (sale of 60 air-conditioned corporate boxes for 10 matches fetched around Rs10 crore, while the sale of naming rights of the northern and eastern stands to Visaka Industries Ltd and GMR Infrastructure Ltd raised about Rs7 crore), and finally, short- and long-term loans were taken from UCO Bank.

Selling corporate boxes is an avenue stadium administrators elsewhere will pursue, says Modi. GMR Infrastructure, which has bought three corporate boxes of 20 seats each in Hyderabad, says it would buy similar boxes elsewhere if available.

“It’s a different experience altogether," says a GMR spokesperson. Each box, with an attached washroom, has a couch for the boring stretches during a match. Lunch is served during day matches, and dinner during day-night games. “We invite our clients and vendors, who bring their families," he says. “It’s a family picnic experience."

Yadav says the association general body will soon decide whether to open the newly-built bar, which currently admits only corporate box-holders and members, to the public. “We are trying to implement the best from the Wanderers (the Johannesburg stadium) and those in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane," he adds.

But creating a fan experience similar to that in more developed economies takes time and a shift in mindset, says Infinity Optimal Solutions Pvt. Ltd chief executive Neerav Tomar, whose company has overseen the facelift of the Dr B.R. Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi for the Osian’s Durand Cup football tournament for the past two years.

Tomar believes a sporting event in a stadium represents the “biggest reality show"; hence, viewers or fans needed to be provided an element of carnival atmosphere. “Abroad, they come to date in the stadiums, parents bring their kids to show the benefit of sports, to keep them away from drugs."

He wants professional stadium management to become a norm in India. “It’s like running a mall, looking at small details," Tomar says. “There can be a McDonald’s or Barista outlet, giant umbrellas...it should be fun, the flavour should change for people to come back to the stadiums."

Is it feasible? Karnataka association’s Desai is sceptical. “I don’t think we Indians are ready for picnics in stadiums... Our culture is different."