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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Cashing in on cricket

By Mike Marqusee
The startling figures paid for the star players at the IPL auction stands testimony to the power of the new Indian market. The most remarkable thing about the IPL player auction was the spectacle it generated. The heady mix of wealth and fame proved intoxicating for many, not least representatives of the media, who celebrated the auction as a triumph of the new India of the free market. For others it was unsettling: cricketers being evaluated like prize bulls, bought up by the super-rich.
That cricket is a business is nothing new, not at least since Thomas Lord put a fence around his ground and started charging admission. But the significance of the IPL cannot be in doubt. For the first time since the early 19th century cricket teams are to be privately owned. As a result, cricket as a business will further edge out cricket as a public service and popular institution.
The BCCI is a public body holding the rights to cricket in trust. What it has done through the IPL is to privatise a public asset. Like other privatisations, it has been accompanied by hoopla that obscures the real nature of the transaction, and its real cost to the public.
IPL's model
The model is the globally-popular English football Premier League, whose teams are stuffed with international stars. But what made it possible to acquire those stars was the long-term standing of the clubs (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea are all more than 100 years old), which provided them with a stable fan base, even in years when the teams weren’t winning.
What's more, in contrast to the 20/20 IPL, the English league constitutes the true apex and classic form of the game at its most competitive and demanding. That’s a major part of what makes its product so attractive. And it does so not only by buying in stars but by nurturing home grown talent through a network of youth squads, reserve teams and coaching clinics.
Before plunging head first into IPL-mania, cricket fans should consider the down side in the comparison with the English Premier League, which has become widely associated with venality and dishonesty, on and off the field. There have been extensive allegations of bribery and corruption, many highlighting dubious trade-offs between agents and managers. The newspapers are full of the pathetic misbehaviour of over-paid, under-educated 20-year old football stars, and the public is not amused.
The danger is that the IPL will emulate the worst of English football, and not only in its paper thin culture of instant celebrity. As the football clubs have developed into big businesses, dedicated to the maximum exploitation of the product, they have grown more remote from the people supporting the game. Ticket prices have soared; merchandising is relentless; corporate hospitality rules.
Increasingly, the owners treat the teams as disposable assets, one part of a larger portfolio. Liverpool FC was bought last year by two U.S. businessmen, Tom Hicks and George Gillette, both major donors to George Bush’s campaign coffers. Now they are at war with each other over an attempt by Gillette to sell the club to Dubai International Capital, the investment arm of the Dubai government.
The English Premier League came into existence in 1992 when the then first division clubs seceded from the Football League. It’s not hard to imagine that the IPL franchises might at some point declare their own independence from the BCCI, arguing, as did the English elite clubs, that as they were generating the profits, they should call the shots, not least by cutting their own deals with broadcasters.
At least in Britain the football fans have well-organised supporters associations, rooted in long-term loyalty to their club of choice, and can sometimes make their voices heard and put pressure on owners. The IPL will have nothing like that.
The auction made it clear that commercial values are not the same as cricketing values, and that the franchise owners’ calculations reflect priorities other than putting a winning team on the field.
Celebrity powers
The million plus bids for Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Andrew Symonds, for example, cannot be explained entirely by their cricketing prowess; clearly their celebrity pulling power enhanced their commercial value: Dhoni as Indian captain and fashion icon, and Symonds as pantomime villain. Ishant Sharma, an exciting prospect but as yet without a single 20/20 international under his belt, was bought for $950,000 by Kolkata; while Umar Gul — the highest wicket taker in last year’s inaugural 20/20 world cup — was snapped up by the same team for a mere $150,000. Yusuf Pathan, with only one 20/20 international to his credit, was bought for $450,000, while Matthew Hayden went for $375,000 and Younis Khan for a bargain $225,000.
Cricketers are securing rewards according to their perceived enhancement of the value of the franchise, which is not the same as enhancement of the cricket team.
The creation of the IPL, like other privatisations, has meant an instant windfall for the sellers, in this case the BCCI, thanks to franchise sales, broadcast and sponsorship takings. “To date we have made $1.749 billion,” declared Lalit Modi, Vice President of the BCCI and chairman of the IPL. But that’s not quite the case. To date the BCCI have signed agreements worth that amount, all to be paid over a period of years. But 64 per cent of all central rights money (broadcasting, sponsorship, etc.) goes to the franchises. The SET broadcast rights deal has netted each of them some $5.5 million — a revenue stream guaranteed regardless of the quality of the product on offer.
This vaunted triumph of the free market proves, on examination, to be less about what Adam Smith called “the invisible hand” and more about a sleight-of-hand, a collusion between public authorities and private interests. For a start, the franchises themselves do not operate in a free market, since each one is guaranteed a monopoly in its respective city, which is not at all the case in English football.
``Our clear focus in designing the league has been to maximise the value of the team owners'', explained Balu Nayar of the International Management Group, the sports management firm working with the BCCI on IPL. In addition to guaranteed revenue streams and monopoly control of markets, the private owners enjoy the right to exploit a variety of public assets at little cost. State associations are facilitating the IPL by providing stadia and players, but it’s been made clear that the usual rights of members and affiliated associations will not apply to IPL games.
The Ranji Trophy will recede even further from public view. And if the IPL franchises do not prove to be the expected money spinners, the owners will cut and run — an option that is not open to the state associations.
The IPL does not really aim to be a people’s sport, as it was understood in the past. The target demographic is people in their 20s and 30s with above average disposable incomes, a growing group but still a minority. Franchise profits will depend less on general ticket sales than on in-stadia advertising, local sponsorships, corporate hospitality, merchandising and licensing. Owners will also measure the success of the cricket venture by its contribution to corporate synergy. Reliance and United Breweries (owners of the Mumbai and Bangalore franchises) will certainly aim to integrate the team within their larger strategies and use it whenever possible to enhance sales of other products and boost the corporate image in general.
Modi has claimed that the money IPL brings into the game will help improve infrastructure. This is said whenever the BCCI strikes a new deal, but at the base of the game the results materialise, at best, in a slow trickle of funds The biggest factor holding back Indian cricket remains the difficulty of access to coaching, quality competition and decent facilities.
Developing the game
The IPL franchises are under no obligation to develop the game as a whole, and are more likely to exacerbate the mal-distribution of resources by drawing them into the eight metros involved in the league. When the BCCI or the state associations make a profit, in theory at least it is ploughed back into the game. But in the IPL the profits generated will belong to the franchise owners. So money will actually be taken out of the game.
The 20/20 world cup was a smash, but reproducing that kind of excitement day after day for 16 weeks may prove difficult. There must be doubt about whether a steady diet of 20/20 will win the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of cricket fans. So much of what makes cricket distinctive and appealing is missing from it: the simmering duels between batsman and bowler, the architecture of a century, the variations in tempo and the variety of skills. There’s no room in 20/20 for the genius of a Tendulkar to be fully distinguished from the talent of a lesser light.
For most players, the payment for one 20/20 IPL match will be many times what they could expect to earn from a full five-day Test match. In the long run, the imbalance is bound to force Test cricket to the margins. This is something almost no one actually wants to see, yet we will be told that it is merely bowing to popular demand. Like other forms of dumbing-down, it’s actually driven not by the wishes of the consumer but by the convenience of those doing the dumbing-down. Higher standards cost more money.
The IPL development has been described as “inevitable”, even by those who find it unappealing. This is a sad surrender to the myth that commercial forces are ineluctable, like forces of nature, and it's a mistake to try to hold them back. In fact, the IPL, like other privatisations, is the result of policy, and reflects the power of the narrow social strata that benefits from it. There are alternatives, but they haven’t been considered. For example, Barcelona, one of the world’s most glamorous football franchises, is a co-operative, owned by local members who elect its officials.
Blazed across the headlines, the startling figures paid for the star players were hailed as testimony to the power of the new Indian market. The IPL profile fits snugly with the self-image of India’s elite and their middle class emulators. The big rewards for the cricketers re-enforce the ``aspirational'' individualism which the corporate media promotes, and in which the only aspiration apparent is to make more money for oneself.
In the millennial hype surrounding the auction, the disparity between the players' exorbitant remuneration and the income of the majority in India was rarely commented upon. What message do these super-salaries send out about what's valued and what’s not in Indian society? People are urged to see the triumphs of the Indian elite — such as IPL buying up the cream of world cricket — as the country’s triumphs. An Indian businessman makes an acquisition in Britain or the US and it's as if Tendulkar had scored a century for India. Status by proxy is offered as a substitute for real empowerment.
Indian cricket is a cultural institution created over many decades by cricketers and cricket-lovers. It’s only because of their efforts that the BCCI and the new franchise owners have a product and a market to exploit. Like so many other social activities and public spaces, cricket is being commodifed, and ordinary cricket fans should pause before joining the celebrations.

The money men now run the sport, test cricket'd days are numbered, 7 one day games and two tests, how long before its 1 test and then ....

Unfortunately only the upper tier players in cricket ( and several other popular sports ) will enjoy the wealth and prestige their chosen sport has to offer. It may be because of their skill or getting the right connections.

If only equal attention will be given to the rest of the player community because it's not only this small number of players on the top that deserve to be recognized and supported.

-Dino Delellis

Not Cricket: Put a Stop to IPL's Corrupt Corporate Carnival

20 - 26 April 2010

"What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" – that is how Trinidadian Marxist and noted cricket writer CLR James had commented on the deep interweaving of cricket with imperialism and racism. The remark takes on a new significance with the controversy unfolding in the IPL – where corporate profits, corruption, betting, Bollywood and other externals play a far greater role than the sport itself.

The controversy erupted when the IPL Chairman Lalit Modi accused former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor of misusing his office to further the interests of a commercial enterprise run by a close friend, who had received a whopping 19 per cent 'sweat equity' worth Rs. 70 crores in the consortium which secured the franchise for the IPL's Kochi team for no discernible services rendered. The accusation, however, brought Lalit Modi himself under the scanner. An IT department investigation was revealed to be in the possession of the government for several months, that exposed Modi's involvement in black money, money laundering, betting and match-fixing in cricket. According to the report, Modi was a failed businessman in his pre-IPL days, but post-IPL, he now enjoys a sumptuous lifestyle – with a private jet, a luxury yacht and a fleet of luxury cars. Moreover, the entire controversy exposed the intricate and shady nexus between politicians, corporates and cricket.

The BJP and other opposition parties have made use of the episode to put the UPA Government in the dock over the charges of cricket-related corruption against one of its Ministers. The UPA Government has sought to contain the damage to its credibility caused by Tharoor's involvement by ensuring that Tharoor steps down as Minister, and by ordering an enquiry into the IPL. But Tharoor is not the only UPA leader nor by far the only politician to be implicated in the murky world of commercial cricket, nor is the BJP itself free of such taint.

Lalit Modi himself is known to be close to the BJP as well as NCP leader and UPA Minister Sharad Pawar, who is former BCCI President and a member of the IPL governing council.

The intimate embrace of politics and cricket is not confined to the corruption and open advocacy by powerful politicians and Ministers of corporate and commercial interests in the cricket industry. The IPL enjoys public resources to the tune of crores, in many guises – waiving of entertainment tax, concessions in land leases, stadium rentals and security, and many other waivers and concessions. The full extent of these write-offs is shrouded in as much secrecy as are the particulars about shareholding and ownership. These enormous concessions for the corrupt commercial bonanza like the IPL is in contrast to the Government's policy of understating poverty and cutting down on food subsidies even in the face of evidence of severe and widespread hunger and soaring prices of food and essentials.

The situation calls for a sharp line to be drawn between sport and commercialisation, as also between politics and Government and commercial interests. Any probe into IPL must ensure full transparency regarding funding, sponsorship and ownership – and the Indian people must assert that public funding and political patronage of a corrupt corporate carnival in the name of cricket is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.