This little episode took place a couple of decades ago: Balvinder Sandhu — the world-cupper — was relaxing over a cup of tea at a ‘tapri’ close to the Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers Sports Club, in the suburb of Chembur. He had reasons to feel contented, for Mumbai had recently won the Ranji Trophy under his tutelage. He was then confronted by a Gujarati shop-owner for advice:
“Sir,” he said, “my elder son is appearing for CA and my second son is looking after my shop. My third son is interested in cricket, and I want to put him in this ‘line’.”
“Line?” shouted Sandhu, with his tea spilling over. “You think cricket is a ‘line’? It’s a game, it’s a passion!” The businessman had to beat a hasty retreat.
Alas, how things have changed over the years! Cricket is now indeed a ‘line’. The Indian Premier League is, believe it or not, a ‘line’. It is all about money — lots and lots of it!
The event has been a money-spinner for everybody involved with it for the past decade. Paupers have become princes, and princes, kings. If there is a Rs. 2.6 crore worth Siraj Mohammed at one end — whose father drove a rickshaw on the streets of Hyderabad to raise him — then there are Yuvraj Singh and Ben Stokes at the other, earning nine-figure pay-cheques to connect bat to ball at a cricket carnival.
The IPL brand, which was last valued at $4.5 billion, has made players richer than they ever imagined they would be. It has also impacted the lives of a million others who are even remotely connected with the game.
There was this small time public sector employee, who would present a ‘good boy’ image in his organisation by ‘volunteering’ to help during IPL matches at the Wankhede Stadium. By his own admission, he would make some useful moolah during the 45-day event. Of course, through dubious means! Now, we aren’t even talking about the huge, huge betting industry, where many ex-cricketers act as ‘experts’, soliciting information on team strengths, pitch conditions etc. to bettors.
For better or for worse, the league has contributed in a big way to the country’s GDP. But has it impacted the country’s social fabric the way it could have, over the last 10 years?
Most world leaders realise the social impact of sport and hence the importance placed on big events like the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. “Sport can create hope where once there was despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination,” said Nelson Mandela.
South Africa is a great example of how sport can change the mindsets of people.
Most sports leagues and clubs at the world level realise the powerful impact their brand has on members of their communities. Therefore, as fan-based organisations, their success lies in building strong and engaged communities.
With the realisation that they possess all the tools for successful ‘social good’ programmes, the best professional clubs and leagues bring on board the services of great marketing people to leverage their brands. And more importantly, to make use of their resources to better serve their communities.
In the United Kingdom, other parts of Europe and the USA, clubs and franchises have successfully built social impact missions to address issues like 1. Promotion of education 2. Empowering of women 3. Teaching youngsters the value of hygiene and a healthy lifestyle and 4. Taking sport to the poorer sections of society.
By their altruism, in the past, club and league owners would earn brownie points and garner public approval. It was a favour done. Things have changed in recent times, however. Most of them now realize that philanthropic activity on their part adds intrinsic value to the organisation, benefits them brand wise, and it isn’t optional!
From a business standpoint, professional sports teams often find social impact programmes lead to more tangible business results and a stronger consumer connect.
Great examples of high-earning individual sportspersons becoming social impact entrepreneurs are that of Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods. Their foundations are rendering yeoman service to society by providing learning centres for kids. In a similar way, Steve Waugh and Sachin Tendulkar have been working with the impoverished in India, providing them basic necessities for a good, healthy lifestyle. The popular adage for social impact sports entrepreneurs is, ‘Doing good, while doing well!’
America’s professional football franchise, Philadelphia Eagles leverages its brand in the ‘Philadelphia Eagles Youth Partnership’. Posters, books, bookmarks, vehicles etc. are all painted with the Eagles’ logo to attract and engage children. Even playgrounds are branded with the Eagles’ logo so as to make them attractive for communities to come together.
The Eagles also have an ‘Eye Mobile’ programme for Philadelphians. They encourage children to have their eyes checked and to wear glasses, if required, to improve their eyesight. They leverage their media reach to highlight other social issues too.
Royal Bafokeng Platinum, a government owned mining company in South Africa is working on creating a sports pyramid in the country – mass sports as the base and pro sports at the highest level. The company constructed the Royal Bafokeng football stadium for the World Cup and is engaged in other community projects.
There are of course, NGOs like the ‘Peace Players International’ and ‘Right to Play’ which are making use of sport to create a more peaceful world. They bring together children from various sides of religious, ethnic and cultural divides to develop friendship and mutual respect through sports and games.
There are a hundred other examples of how leagues and franchises are working for their communities, in other countries.
‘Mumbai Indians’ is perhaps the most popular brand name in the IPL, what with some of the world’s cricketing legends on board, either as players or as mentors. Their social initiative is ‘Education for All’, which along with some of the best NGOs in the city, aims to provide basic education to the underprivileged. Over the last seven years, the programme is said to have impacted the lives of over one lakh children.
The Delhi Daredevils, owned by the GM Rao Group, has initiated the ‘Dare to Care’ programme in collaboration with UNICEF. Through this initiative the franchise aims at actively advocating the rights of adolescent girls, especially the excluded and marginalised ones.
The Chennai Super Kings’ social reach out programme includes tie ups with NGOs, ‘Green Initiatives’ and ‘Support a Cause’. These initiatives, if at all, haven’t received much publicity in the Indian media. Other franchises too are doing their bit for society, in their own small ways.
The question is: Is the IPL creating a social revolution in the country that it is really capable of?
The Board of Control for Cricket in India and the eight franchises will do well to remember Abraham Lincoln’s statement of the 19th century: “In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.”
So that they do not kill the cash cow that they now possess, they have got to think in the long term; they have got to think of a collaborative programme, monitored by the BCCI, to make India a better place to live in; a place where people will look at the IPL favourably.
Surely, the eight franchises can join forces to create a social revolution in the country. Cleanliness, hygiene, basic education, female foeticide, religious and caste discriminations and many other issues could be taken up by these teams, in their circle of influence, bringing about a change in mind-sets.
As one decade ends and another, more challenging one emerges; franchise owners and the big bosses at BCCI will have some thinking to do. A better, more progressive India will mean a bigger, better IPL.
Or else, in five years’ time, cricket may no longer be a sought-after ‘line’; there may just be no IPL. Just saying!
The author is a sportswriter, caricaturist and a former fast bowler besides being a cricket and mental toughness coach