Cricket goes global(isation)

After the mayhem of the player auctions for the BCCI’s newly formed Indian Premier League its time to take stock.

Astronomical sums were thrown about for acquiring players for the 8 franchises of the IPL. The highest bid was for Mahendra Dhoni who was acquired by Chennai for Rs 6 crores. The next highest was Andrew Symmonds (gasp!) who went for a cool 5.4 crore. After the racism row involving Symmonds and Harbhajan and the nationalistic outrage it aroused in India (“How silly, of course we are not racist”) one would have thought Symonds would be persona-non-grata in India. Nothing like a free market balm for soothing hurt feelings, eh. Symonds’ more experienced team mates were upset that they went so cheap. Ponting got only a few hundred thousand dollars above his reserve price and McGrath failed to even get his reserve price.

Something like Rs 128 crore was spent on 78 cricketers at the auction. In financial terms the IPL has been a tremendous success generating a cool billion dollars all told in player and franchise auctions, television rights and marketing jamboree. But as a purely sporting experience I am not so sure how much it is worth.

Let me explain. The IPL is a bid to create an American or European type of sports league where franchises can afford to buy and sell players from other franchises or import them from outside the league paying tremendous amounts of cash to pay for the upkeep of the teams generated from television rights, sponsorship deals and ticket revenues.

For a template look no further than the English Premier League. The EPL was formed to reap the benefits of television rights deals. 20 of the top clubs in English football constitute the league in a system of promotion and relegation. EPL is the most watched sporting league in the world generating revenues in excess of a billion pounds per annum as of 2007-08. If the IPL hopes to emulate EPL they have got their marketing instincts right, but their sporting fundas all mixed up. For one thing about the EPL is that all the teams in the EPL were formed over a century ago as sporting expressions within close knit communities throughout England. This is important to remember. Football teams in Europe are of old vintage and grew organically in close knit communities, nurtured by close bonds of working class kinship and affiliation. This was also before the age of multi-billion dollar television deals, 24/7 news, media hype and marketing blitz. Therefore, the relation between the fan and the club in European football is of an entirely different order. To be a fan is to follow your team through thick and thin, through lean and strong, up and down, failure and success and never lose hope.

This is the difference between the IPL and the EPL it hopes to emulate. IPL may become an commercial success, but to launch a marketing blitz mixed with a strong dose of corporate and bollywood glamour and then hope that fans will connect and show allegiance to city based teams is unrealistic. Especially in a game like cricket where the associations are more with the national team than at the city-level or club-level.

As a purely sporting experience I have my reservations.

But who said IPL was about sports? When rookies sell for larger amounts than seasoned players you begin to suspect that what was really auctioned was their marketing potential. Consider the fact that Symonds was the second highest auctioned player. Hey, this guy was involved in a race row with Harbhajan Singh and thanks to 24/7 news became a familiar, and reviled, figure in India. Now consider the marketing potential: Harbhajan and Symonds star in a television commercial in the near future for some inane product and recreate on screen their famous ma ki/monkey spat. Imagine the financial windfall.

Apart from marketing considerations, IPL raises other interesting questions. In a sense it has made geography irrelevant. If a city-based playing 11 consists of different nationalities playing together could it earn the same loyalty and passion from fans that a more homogenous national playing 11 commanded? The gentleman’s game has taken the first step towards a more globalised form. And if the IPL truly kicks off and establishes itself among fans will the support for a city-based team trump the support that the national team traditionally enjoys? The club Vs country tussle in football provides an interesting example of what might eventually happen in Twenty20 cricket. Will the city undermine the nation-state?

Another consideration is that the mega bucks on offer in the IPL may prompt players to abdicate national duty in touring other countries. The implications are clear: the balance of power in world cricket has shifted to India from the game’s traditional power brokers of England and Australia. And with it come uncomfortable questions of how a financial, if not athletic, leader of the game conducts itself.

The recent racism row offered interesting insights. The Indians were furious with the racism charge slapped against Harbhajan. Withdraw the racism charge or we quit this tour, they are reported to have told the Australians and their own cricket board. But lets face it, Indians are racists in the sense that most Indians adore white skin and look down upon Africans. Just check out the matrimonial columns that want “fair brides” or the ads that sell fairness creams. In the future, as more foreigners come to India to play Indians will have to confront the racism issue.

An Indian city will host Australian, South African, Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan players in a team coached by persons from any of the above mentioned nationalities, payed for by Indian capital, watched by an international (international in cricket usually means 10 countries) audience on Japanese and Chinese made television sets, transmitted by a Japanese owned company.

Will audiences bite? Wait and watch.

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