Row over Virat Kohli's absence from Asia Cup 2018: Broadcasters can't be allowed to run the sport

  • Austin Coutinho
  • September 22nd, 2018
  • 16:17:01 IST

Arguably the world’s best batsman at present, Virat Kohli’s decision to skip the Asia Cup matches in the UAE sent shock waves across media circles last week. Star, the official broadcaster of the event, believed that the absence of the India skipper would not only cause a viewership drop but also severely affect the commercial aspects of the tournament.

Sport, the world over, is a multi-billion dollar industry. A large portion of that revenue comes from broadcast rights. There are two factors that drive media profits, especially from involvement in sports: 1. Bums on seats at the stadia, and 2. Television viewership ratings. Both these factors affect the amount of money the broadcasters can make from advertising and sponsorships. Therefore, a huge star like Kohli staying away from the Asia Cup is a cause for concern for both broadcasters and organisers.

Organisers of big international events in the past, especially in athletics, have been known to pay stars — with the ability to bring in the crowds — appearance money and other such incentives to participate. This, I am told, was rampant in the pre-professional years of sport. In order to avoid a Kohli-like incident in future is it possible that broadcasters, sponsors and organisers would offer star players unofficial inducements?

Take for instance the World Cup football final of 1998. Brazilian star forward, Ronaldo took ill on the morning of the all-important match against France. He wasn’t therefore included in the squad. However, an hour before kick-off, Ronaldo’s name suddenly appeared in the starting lineup. He was visibly dazed throughout the 90 minutes of play which was won by France 3-0. It is rumoured that Nike, who had invested millions of dollars in Ronaldo, had insisted that he should play and therefore the Brazilian team management had to give in to their demands. Was there an inducement involved? We will never know.

A huge star like Kohli staying away from the Asia Cup is a cause for concern for both broadcasters and organisers. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

A huge star like Kohli staying away from the Asia Cup is a cause for concern for both broadcasters and organisers. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho

The India-Pakistan clash, in cricket, at any level is a bonanza for media companies. Emotions run high on either side of the Wagah Border during the match and broadcasters try to cash in on the highly-charged event by building it up well in advance. The ‘Mauka Mauka’ campaign prior to the 2015 cricket World Cup is a prime example of the same. This brings in spectators and the number of television eyeballs goes through the roof. TV viewership in The Champions Trophy 2017 clash between the two sub-continental teams is said to have touched a whopping 47.45 million impressions!

At the Asia Cup of 2018, India and Pakistan are slated to meet thrice, if all goes well, during the fortnight-long tournament. Rules of the event have been cleverly tweaked to make this possible, offering media companies and the organisers the opportunity to make huge profits. Pundits suspect that the official broadcaster, and the sponsors, possibly had a say in drawing up the schedule of the tournament.

In 1979, Bjorn Borg was to play America’s Roscoe Tanner in the gentlemen’s singles final at Wimbledon. NBC had won the US broadcast rights and had therefore requested that the match be started at 2.02 pm instead of ‘precisely at 2.00 pm’, to allow time for a few commercials. Wimbledon had refused. Precisely at 2.00 pm, Tanner asked to visit the cloakroom, showing his little finger to the umpire, thus allowing NBC a couple of minutes of commercial time. Nobody knows if Tanner was paid for that little gesture.

In April 2018, Star India won the BCCI media rights for domestic and international cricket matches till March 2023. The deal, which is worth Rs 6,138 crore for both television and digital rights, works out to a mind-boggling Rs 60 crore per match. The TV channel, in order to make a profit, therefore needs to monetise its properties by marketing them to companies and businesses interested in reaching out to large audiences, in India and abroad. The 10-second spots between overs, during drinks and at change-overs, in international matches, are astronomically priced. Many businesses though find it worth their while investing a major portion of their publicity budgets on the same.

The BCCI, besides paying international stars handsomely, has made domestic cricket quite lucrative. This has been possible primarily because of the media rights sold to TV channels. It is surprising though that most of the corporates that advertise on Star’s TV and digital media channels aren’t really sports oriented. Getting a slot on TV during an international cricket match, and reaching large, captive audiences, is a part of their marketing plan. Promoting sport isn’t. This sadly is the dichotomy that exists in corporate India when it comes to supporting sports and sportspersons.

For nearly four decades, I worked for a public sector company that loved sports and took care of its sportspersons. We had professional level teams in football, cricket, hockey, volleyball, kabaddi, badminton and table-tennis. An excellent sports complex provided recreational facilities to employees and their families too. In the mid-1990s, with the pressures of liberalisation and globalisation taking a toll on its finances, the new chairman and managing director (CMD) of the company decided to revamp employee structure, stop fresh recruitments and cut out unnecessary expenditures. Sport, he decided, would have to go.

As sports officer at that time, I was asked by some top managers of the company to make a presentation to the CMD, explaining why sport was important to the company. At our hilltop guesthouse, with the company’s top management and senior sportspersons in attendance, I elucidated on the value sports brought to the organisation. Intangibles were monetised, the goodwill generated by the promotion of sports at various levels, for more than three decades, was explained and the pride of performance that percolated down the employee ranks and affected productivity was demonstrated. At the end of the presentation, the CMD said, “Excellent! Now that I know exactly how sport adds value to our company, we don’t need to discontinue the promotion of sport.”

Neither Kohli’s latest Land Rover, nor Rohit Sharma’s five bedroom, sea-facing apartment is sponsored by Star. If India’s cricketers are multi-millionaires today, it is only because Indian companies pay media houses, through their noses, to book advertising slots during matches. It is also because many of them pick up the title-sponsorship and other tags at major events, especially the IPL. For the amount of money corporate India spends on cricket and other sponsorships, it is only fair that they get the wide publicity that they look for.

What isn’t fair though is the neglect of sport by these very companies at the village, district and town levels. Huge amounts of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) funds either remain underutilised or are wasted in unproductive schemes. If the Government of India allows only 20 percent of all CSR funds for the building of sports infrastructure, grass-root level coaching schemes and to provide scholarships to talented, young sportspersons, the country can become a sports super power in a decade’s time.

A few months ago, the Supreme Court appointed committee of BCCI advised Star India to cut out the advertising slots between overs, during cricket matches. The CEO of Star India retorted by saying that if that happens, the deal with BCCI would have to be renegotiated. BCCI needs to put its foot down. Or else, spectators will soon have to watch commercials, with cricket shown in between. Media houses aren’t bothered about why Kohli needs rest. They are bothered about how their bottom lines will be affected by his absence.

Money runs sport, but the line needs to be drawn somewhere!

The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sough-after mental toughness trainer.

Updated Date: September 22, 2018 16:17:01 IST

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