Cricket's Brexit: Why overreaching for new markets, ignoring India will hurt the global sport

Every forty years or so, cricket is forced to adopt and embrace the future.

The first Test match played in 1877 converted cricket into an international game. The Bodyline series in 1932 forced cricket into the modern era. The World Series Cricket rebel league in 1977 brought cricket into the limited overs/player-professional era.

Now, cricket's new profit-sharing model seems on track to create a fourth cataclysm – a Brexit of sorts for the sport –pitting internationals with multiple countries against city-based franchise leagues. Unless the administrators can backtrack from their current position, the split seems inevitable.

Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. Reuters file image

Representational image. Reuters

There are three reasons why the rather extreme analogy of Brexit is used here.

Financial interests: While the International Cricket Council's (ICC) intent to globalise the game is reasonable – even laudable – their modus operandi, to fund it by milking Indian cricket revenues, is not. It does not recognise that individual associations have legitimate financial interests.

And this is not just any association we are talking about, this is 70 percent of cricket's revenue. At this point, the ICC has not explained why their proposed reallocation is good for India in the short, medium or long-term. In the absence of a persuasive case, it is seen as bureaucratic arbitrariness – like administrators in Brussels regulating supermarket specifications.

National sovereignty: Although the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is a private club, the Indian team is seen as a national team. India, at this moment, is going through an intense conversation on identity. By mandating the financial reallocation the administrators and court appointees are underestimating the strength of national sentiment – just as the Brexit 'Remainers' underestimated the nationalist sentiment on immigration. It's important during moments of great change to ensure that people are carried through the process.

Intellectual elitism: The administrators' intent to drive Test cricket and globalisation is not where people are voting with their feet and eyeballs in India. There is a disconnect between what they think people should watch and what fans actually want to watch. The analogy with Brexit is the gap between where the intellectuals were and where the person on the street was headed.

The proposed reallocation of approximately $250 million of revenue away from India does not recognise two ground realities. First, that India is 70 percent of world cricket, both right now and in the long term. And second, that there are only three commercially robust teams in the world as of now – Australia, England and India.

The rest, with some excellent teams among them, are either not well administered or commercially unviable without the 'big three'. The new revenue sharing formula is simply the milking of the Indian market for creating new "growth markets" while ignoring the obvious fact that the Indian market has the largest untapped audience with the largest growth potential. Solutions that are based on how the world should be rather than how it have a nasty way of unravelling.

If India was a declining market for cricket and the new markets were growing much faster, it would make perfect sense to divert the $250 million. However, India remains – by some distance – cricket's fastest growing market.

The tier-II, III and IV towns apart from rural India offer more growth prospects than almost all the "growth markets", with the exception of Bangladesh. The unintended consequence of these administrative interventions is the creation of a global club of uninterested voters. This mirrors the Lodha committee reboot, which gives voting rights to all the North Eastern states and not to Mumbai, which has won the Ranji Trophy forty-one out of the eighty-three times it has been hosted.

For administrators, cricket has always been exclusive and clubby, unlike football. The fans are almost an afterthought, an unfortunate appendage that must be endured to keep the old boys club going. The Indian Premier League (IPL) may be valued at over $4 billion, but cricket administrators will still choose to focus on how to control this new beast and build mythical fan bases in the US and China. The administrators are not worried that the likes of IPL and Big Bash will fail – they are worried they will succeed because that will make them less relevant.

According to reports, India, which contributes 70 percent of cricket's revenue, will get less than 23 percent of it as per the new formula.

Of the $250 million being diverted away from India, a significant portion could have been put in making the fan experience in India smoother.

Do sports administrators talk to fans in a structured way? Are they unaware of how difficult the fan experience is? Anybody who has endured a Test match or a One Day match in India; tried to buy a World Cup ticket online; tolerated the stinking urinals; sat on boiling hot seats; survived the jostling by police, will be familiar with the experience in question.

The new formula has Zimbabwe – clearly unfit to be in international cricket – earning 70 percent of Cricket Australia, which on a hundred year basis has been the most consistent performer.

Cricket globally risks becoming an aggregation of the uninterested and at best a special interest group. The time has come when Indian cricket must ask why it should become the milch cow for failed administrations. Instead of a spray and pray approach to money, the focus should be on selecting growth opportunities, including some associated with real fans' with a passion for the game, like in Nepal or Afghanistan.

By forcing a pointless money-for-votes agenda and cornering the BCCI (which has its own karma to deal with), the administrators have set in motion the stage for a cricketing Brexit. This exit will be three-phased:

Players' 'Brexit': This has already started under the radar. A number of cricket matches are now played just to keep associations liquid. This has resulted in unprecedented injury rates, especially for fast bowlers. Top players have chosen to opt out of these matches.

This trend drives down viewership of these matches and eventually, the whole enterprise of building demand where none exists will fall apart. We are witnessing a phenomenon where fast bowlers, who are unfit to play cricket year round, 'magically' recover in time for IPL. But they can't be blamed... they need to protect their bodies. This exodus of players from such matches, though, is still just a 'soft Brexit'.

India's 'Brexit': The BCCI, judging from newspaper reports, are simply being forced to play in the Champions Trophy in England by the court-appointed CoA. We are now in for an embarrassing conflict simply because the CoA does not have the commercial and negotiation skills for the job.

The absurdity of milking the Indian market to build the cricket market in the US, one hundred years too late, and in China, five to ten years late, will be a costly and painful lesson. The loss will be biggest in smaller towns in India, which now have access to international football, basketball and local leagues.

If the enforcement approach continues in about three years, we will see a walkout when the BCCI is less controlled by committees. If not the BCCI, it is a matter of time before the Indian government figures out that it is losing an absurd amount of foreign exchange and taxes for fulfilling an overreaching eccentric vision of winning in Zimbabwe, US and China with Test cricket.

Australian and England's Brexit: Commercially, Australia and England only need each other and India to sustain. South Africa and New Zealand are also crowd-pullers. A Pakistan tour is always interesting but is usually one-way traffic. Sri Lanka is no longer the team it used to be and the West Indies players are already free agents to differing degrees.

Bangladesh is rising but still not a crowd-puller outside its home. Once, English Twenty20 cricket takes off the way the Big Bash has, they will see less value in player time being invested in low-interest series.

It is possible for them to realign on historic grounds. They cannot invest player time in the Ashes, city-based Twenty20, County cricket, World Cup games, and the globalisation of cricket. The latter will be the casualty.

The fan experience in cricket is changing. Cricket will increasingly be consumed digitally, on mobile phones with customised commentary experiences. The rise of alternative and contemporary commentary channels like Guerilla Cricket perhaps points to the future of the fan experience.

It will become less solemn and more irreverent. Test matches will be seen as highlights packages. Even in strong cricket playing nations like Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand, the sport is by no means a dominant number one and the part-time consumption media model for anything other than Twenty20 is inevitable.

In conclusion, while the game is moving towards Twenty20 but the administrators are trying to take the game back to the 1960s.

The future of the game will not be decided by bureaucrats, it will be decided by fans, franchises and media companies. The year 2017 will, in retrospect, be seen as the last and most misinformed attempt by administrators to return the game to their childhood experiences, instead of making the game relevant to young people today.

Cricket's Brexit is coming. There is only so long you can milk sentiment while failing to deliver a memorable experience to fans in your biggest market.

The newer generation fans seem to prefer the Twenty20 format. You won't find many people under thirty in India who have paid money to see a Test match in the stadium for all five days. But if one had to choose between a future with Twenty20 cricket as the lead and no cricket, the former will be the more pragmatic approach.

Cricket has lost its traditional soul but perhaps gained a new one and it’s time for the next generation to drive cricket's growth. There was a time when China and the US had potential but after assessing the NBAs incredible win in China, the outstanding database management of the US professional leagues and the goings on in USACA, anything cricket can do there will be too little, too late.

Updated Date: May 06, 2017 16:55 PM

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