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The privatisation of cricket

The Hindu, 9 March

The most remarkable thing about the Indian Premier League 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 stated 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.

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 a hundred years old), which provided them with a stable fan base, even in years when the team 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 homegrown 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 US 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. 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% 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. 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 Text 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 millenial 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 USA 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.