Cricket, excess and market mania

By Srinivasan Ramani

The Indian Premier League is seen as a bonanza for cricket viewers, players and corporate owners, but hidden behind the glitz is the fact that it represents a distorted form of commodity and consumer excess. The Indian Premier League (IPL), a corporate-driven tournament featuring a set of city teams playing Twenty20 cricket, has made news with a multimillion dollar player auction. Players from various cricket-playing nations were ``bought'' and ``sold'' through bids made by the corporate-owned teams (the franchisees).

Cricket in India has become the only sport that has captured widespread mass and media attention. The popularity of the sport has increased in leaps and bounds, and the way the sport has been managed and administered has reflected the dominant mode of economic transactions in the country.

From being a sport that was a hangover from the British colonial era and restricted to teams divided on communal bases (the Pentangular, for example, during the early 1940s), it has become a symbol of Indian nationalism and is now becoming a full-fledged commercial enterprise. Cricket has traversed a path very much followed by the nation in its socioeconomic course. If playing for the nation's pride was what drove professional cricket after independence, it is playing for commercial gain that is the driving story today, much in consonance with the sharp changes in the nature of nation building that exists in India.

An afterthought

Sport was always viewed as an afterthought activity for leisure by the post-independent Indian state and it never fitted in with youth development and community building. The neglect of sport because of this lack of priority has meant that India as a nation has performed poorly in international competitions and, other than a few individual and team successes, the story is one of despair. Even in sports where Indians held a traditional advantage such as hockey, the lack of adequate institutional support and planning has meant that the sport has gradually withered away.

Cricket, however, underwent a different trajectory. Run by an autonomous board (the Board of Control of Cricket in India or BCCI), which has created a structure of age group, state and domestic tournament-based cricket and manages the national cricket team, cricket has effectively become a popular sport that has touched several urban and semi-urban bases in the country. At the same time, the powerful BCCI has followed an opaque model of functioning even as it has earned money by the fistful owing to the growing popularity of the sport, particularly after the victory in the 1983 World Cup and the growth in popularity of one-day cricket.

The growth of the market economy since 1991 has given the BCCI manifold opportunities in the ``system''. So, just as corporate bodies in India control pretty much the nature of growth and the pulse of nation building, cricket has passed into their hands too.

In the past, Indian cricket was used as a tool to buttress nationalism; and the Indian cricket team (managed by the BCCI) was meant to represent the Indian nation in international competition. The players in the national team were therefore performing a national duty. However, over time, commercial and corporate interests could no longer be kept out of the way cricket was run. Ergo, the IPL, an assortment of eight city-teams (franchises) playing Twenty20 cricket. This new league is a form of commodity market, where the commodities are players, the owners are the corporates, and the value of the commodity is determined by a set of rules that play itself out on a maidan with cricketing instruments and more so on the television screen in the form of commercials.

Commodity market

The establishment of this commodity market was kicked off by an auction system that instituted market value for the players through a valuation process. This valuation process considered not just the skill levels of the players but also their brand building capabilities. So it is that Ishant Sharma, a tyro who has promised a great future through some inspiring performances in Australia for the Indian team, was valued at $950,000 as compared to the established Umar Gul valued at just $150,000 although he took the most wickets playing for Pakistan in the World Twenty20 tournament. Sharma's value as a representative for brand building the franchise, owing to his Indian nationality, trumped over the real value of Umar Gul. Obviously the corporates were looking ahead at great returns for their investment.

India had just won the Twenty20 World Cup some months ago and this form of the game had captured the imagination of the masses. Added to the buzz of Twenty-20 was the glitz from yet another set of obsessions of the Indian public: the entertainment industry (Mumbai film personalities) plus the new consumerism of the middle classes. Now this potent mix was bound to churn out golden eggs from the cricket goose and the Indian cricket board only had to release its employees to partake in the process. The BCCI had the advantage of running the game in the second largest populace in the world and it was only natural that it could influence other boards in releasing players for the jamboree that the IPL was. Ergo, the league got an international flavour adding more golden eggs and more value.

This bonanza for cricketers in a formal sense is a huge progressive step. Earlier, players were stuck in an atmosphere where the board decided their allowances and pay -– even after substantial raises in recent years –- which were commensurate with the semi-egalitarian economic environment of the past. So, a cricketer despite their performance and the attention that they received was paid a pittance and the only recompense they had was that they were playing for ``national pride'' that sat well with the politico-economic story after independence.

Qualitative difference

Commercialisation of sport is a reality that has existed all across the world. But there is a qualitative difference between the forms of commercial sport that exist in mature capitalist and developed countries and what is taking shape in India in the form of the IPL. In the US, for example, major leagues have been established for four main sports –- baseball, basketball, American football and ice hockey (a league exists for soccer too). These sports are played seasonally as a well-integrated market that cohabits with a regulated structure.

Participation is guaranteed for interested sections through feeder units in colleges and schools, and infrastructure is established through community ownership and city planning administrations. In other words, a fully fledged sport environment with corporate ownership and state and community support exists, transacting action in the various leagues.

In Japan, professional baseball leagues involve corporate owned city-based teams too. Sportspeople are fed to these leagues from the school and college levels (the extremely popular Koshien school baseball tournament for example) and athlete development programs are coalesced with youth development activity driven by the state. In Spain, club football acts as an avenue for passionate local nationalism (Spain is a composite country with different autonomous regions) to be channelled into sporting competition. The local governments play an important role in youth and skill development initiatives. The clubs and cities have also diversified into other sports such as basketball and tennis, thus opening avenues for sportspeople who are not footballers alone.

Market-driven competition has not diluted the essence of the sport either. In nations where the state predominates in planning and administration of sports, such as in Cuba and China, emphasis on youth development and participation in amateur sports is given very high priority.

Anarchic nature

In India, the growth of cricket at the expense of other sports derives from the lack of a participatory sporting culture. Sport, traditionally viewed as leisure activity has been shunned by governing institutions and there has been virtually no focus on youth development and infrastructure building from village to city levels. The reduced emphasis on youth and skill development for sport in general ensures that the process of bringing up talent remains anarchic and only cricket with its relatively more mature feeder systems of age group tournaments, clubs and state boards remains the dominant form of sport activity.

Cricket's thriving, in contrast, has been limited to urban and semi-urban areas and has been driven purely by popularity. The rural masses hardly have any hope of getting through to such tournaments without state intervention in grooming talent in these areas.

The anarchic nature of market-driven sport also ensures that only a small coterie of readily recognisable talent gets attention. Those slogging it out in domestic cricket with skill levels suited more for more rigorous five-day test cricket would pale in comparison to the players getting to play in the IPL Twenty-20s. The IPL is bound to skew and distort cricket as it is today a jamboree that is not so much balanced in its recognition of skills as much as it values brands.

The IPL itself was a response to the Indian Cricket League (ICL). The ICL was started by the Essel group to operate outside the purview of the BCCI, and weaned away domestic players disenchanted with playing conditions and lured by the money offered by the corporate owners of the league.

Seen from a larger perspective of sports management and administration in the country, the IPL becomes a distorted money-spinning exercise devoid of substantial participative value. Thus a cricketer like Ishant Sharma would earn $950,000 over three years for merely bowling four overs each in about 16 games in each year and for endorsing a brand while other sportspeople such as hockey players suffer from lack of compensation and training facilities. Reliance on corporate bodies alone to promote sports would only help bring in so much benefit of commercialisation-inflated value for the commodified participant and exclusive pandering to the voyeuristic desires of the consumerised spectator.

The corporates themselves realise that they are unlikely to earn any money in the initial years; returns, if any, will come later. Why then are some of the biggest names in the business? There could be many reasons. The professed ones are related to brand building. The more accurate explanations are of two kinds. One is plain vainty –- as expressed in the money poured out by the likes of Vijay Mallya, Mukesh Ambani and the filmstar Shahrukh Khan. They can indulge in this vanity because business has never been so good in India. The second reason is that it is a sign of excess all around that this finds its expression in many areas –- excess in the lifestyles of the rich, excess in consumerism, excess in business endeavours and excess in ``bidding'' for team licences and players. History tells us that the period of excess is followed by a period of collapse. The only unknown is how long it would take.

[This article was originally published by the Economic and Political Weekly (India),]

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