Hallelujah. Crowds are Down
India's season started as it inevitably does these does these days, with an endless series of ODIs against a side that doesn't need, nor care, to play them. It was accompanied, as it always is, by articles bemoaning the pointlessness of it all, except this time was different. This time, the crowds stayed away too. Cue, even greater panic, that the Indian public could be sated with "too much cricket".
I beg to differ. Harsha Bhogle is not the first to point out that media has long had a simple formula for valuing rights. The FTP and world cup are both structured around maximising value from a simple formula: "Are India playing? And are India winning?" What is not mentioned is how deleterious constructing a schedule around such a inane formula is to the wider game.
As long as Indian audiencess could be guaranteed to attend and watch games as long as India was involved, it mattered not a bit that the series was too long, too frequently played, or just downright unnecessary. If we have passed that limit, there might be hope for the game yet.
Too much cricket?
Inevitably, the first response to smaller crowds is to blame too much cricket. An explanation that makes sense at an economic level: if supply is increased, the price must drop to match demand, and if the price is the cost of someone's attention, you risk losing them. But it is not without weaknesses. For starters, there is not that much cricket. In comparison with most other sports, there is very little top class cricket, played at particular venues in any year. Even in a busy year, including the world cup, IPL and Champions' League, Mumbai hasn't had more than 20 odd days of cricket this year. That is still comparable to the amount of sport various football leagues put on, in a city with a massive population and only one team vying for attention. It is only half the amount of games seen in the NBA or NHL, and less than a quarter the number in the MLB.
It really isn't over-supply that is the problem, it is over-supply of a dud product.
Too many trophies!
Take any sport, players will play for one or two, maybe up to four trophies in a year, though the lesser trophies tend to be seen in a lesser light. They play long seasons culminating in the awarding of something significant. Now look at the list of trophies teams Shane Watson plays for, competed in over the past 12 months:
Australia in India ODI series
Sri Lanka in Australia T20I Match
Sri Lanka in Australia ODI Series
England in Australia T20I Series
England in Australia ODI Series
ICC Cricket World Cup
Australia in Bangladesh ODI Series
Australia in Sri Lanka T20I Series
Australia in Sri Lanka ODI Series
Ryobi One Day Cup
Big Bash T20
Indian Premier League
That's SEVENTEEN competitions. Even discounting domestic tournaments, there are still far too many trophies for any fan to care about the bulk of them, and it should be no surprise that they don't. As few as two actually resonate, regardless of the cricket played. The cricket calendar needs drastic reform. Bilateral tours have their place, but they are a relic of the 19th century; other sports did away with them a long time ago because they breed financial inequalities, scheduling chaos and lack context. Having three formats is bad enough. Attempting to interest fans in half a dozen competitions in each of them is just ridiculous.
All hail our media overlords?
Implied or stated in several pieces lamenting the demise of the poorly thought out test championship proposal for at least six years was the idea that media companies control what cricket is played. Bhogle explicitly draws a distinction between the "romantic" players, most media and some administrators, and the "business" orientated media companies that apparently drive scheduling.
There is no question the media companies are influential, push for what makes them money, and contract in requirements that guarantee they'll receive what they've been promised. The demise of the test championship is partly the fault of one of those contractual clauses. But it is also the fault of administrators, and more importantly, players. Romantic or not, and in favour of more context or not, they still expect to be paid top dollar, often via revenue sharing agreements with their respective boards, and not one has come out in favour of less money for better, more context driven, cricket.
Boards and players have a choice in what they play - what they sell to media companies. Barring the (Packer/ICL) intervention of a media company into scheduling, a prospect far more likely outside the three rich nations, that is a free choice. There is no market to be fought against, because there is no market for the player's talents outside what currently exists. If some of those choices result in less money, then they will survive, as they did only 15 years ago when money was far scarcer.
Dileep Premachandran has it exactly right when he states that:
"Context is everything and the Ashes rivalry aside, it's hard to find any in the modern game."
Other sports are very keen to gain a foothold in the Indian sport-media market; other sports have context. If crowds are down in India it ought to be a wake-up call that there is more to administration and scheduling than hitching your sport onto a parochialism-driven gracy-train. India are not bound to cricket, if anything, they are bound to Sachin. When he retires, Indian cricket (and therefore world cricket) might be only an Indian basketball or footballing superstar away from some significant drops in revenue. In a population that big, one of those superstars is only a matter of time.
25th October, 2011 23:42:14
The cult of the personality is alive and well in Aus too. Hence, that Hilditch talking about how they want to unearth the next superstar and them choosing a kid with no record in anything to play for Aus.
Lolly 26th October, 2011 08:28:27
Hallelujah. Crowds are Down
Lolly, stars are central to any sport's popularity. The NBA rose and fell on the Bird-Magic rivalry and Jordan's celebrity; it became mammoth in China after Yao Ming was drafted, and will be rightly concerned that he has retired. Likewise, baseball can trace it's mid-century popularity to Ruth and his successors at the Yankees.
I think the the Big Bash will struggle in the absence of players from the Australian team, in the same way the IPL succeeded with the Indian team playing for different franchises. Having said that, you often hear complaints that the standard of some game is poor, and people aren't interested. You don't generally see that in other sports, teams have their stars, and their journeymen, some of whom have huge cult status amongst local supporters. Cricket's obsession with playing high profile fixtures incessantly is like a diet of only cream. Tasty at first, but liable to make you sick.
Russ 26th October, 2011 17:26:20
Stars are important, but the way that CA are going about it is like a reality show. They are making people famous on the back of not having proved anything yet. The hype around Pat Cummins is an almost exact replica of the hype around Steve Smith before he proved to be a young player of reasonable ability - but certainly no matchwinner in any format - who may or may not develop later into a very good one. This is what I don' t really understand. Except that it appears to be a fairly relentless policy of CA's as a way of trying cricket's name in the press.
Stars as part of an established team within a community is something different. If the IPL keeps deliberately moving players and upending teams every 3 years or so, they won't even hold on to that.
Lolly 26th October, 2011 19:56:52