T-20 In a league of its own

Written by Boria Mazumdar | Updated: May 31 2009, 08:52am hrs
With the IPL over, action will now shift to the UK for the world T-20 starting in less than a week from now. With Lords all decked up with newly installed flood lights and with June promising to be a better weather month than normal, the organisers, both the ICC and the ECB, can expect some decent cash flows into their till in the coming days.

To ensure such a scenario, they have already started offering incentives to get the crowds in through the turnstiles in large numbers. Fans who missed out on action on days four and five in the first Test against the West Indies with the visitors proving three day pushovers, now have the opportunity of making up for their losses. Half price tickets await them for the world T-20 inaugural game, a wise attempt to ensure a full house at Lords come 5 June 2009. And with the international T-20 format a reliable crowd puller in the UK since it started off as a fresh infusion of oxygen for an ailing game in June 2003, hopes are for decent crowds in most games during the two and a half week extravaganza. Unlike the domestic T-20 circuit, which is gradually falling by the wayside, an international competition like the ICC T-20, which is rooted in nationalism and nationalist sensibilities, will always thrive in multicultural London and its suburbs.

And this is where the sub-continent comes into the equation. Put bluntly, the huge Indian and Pakistani cricket markets, both at home and in the British South Asian Diaspora, hold the key to the organisers making substantial profits from the competition. In fact, soon after ESPN-Star sports, the host broadcaster, acquired the ICC telecast rights for a staggering billion plus dollars in early 2007, ESS Managing Director Jamie Davis had declared, This acquisition affirms our commitment to the Indian sub-continent and the world and we are absolutely delighted to bring the exciting line-up of ICC events to millions of cricket fans globally.

Inherent in this statement is the root of the problem. For the recovery of more than 80% of the $1.1billion spent, ESPN is banking on the cricket craze, especially in India. Intrinsic to Mr Davis statement is the notion that cricket continues to be the license to print money for broadcasters in the sub-continent.

However, the reality, as Peter Hutton of rival sports channel Ten Sports, suggests is that the price being paid is linked to equity valuations, mergers and acquisitions. It is a dangerous time, when advertising income doesnt cover the rights fees being paid and there is every danger of the cricketing bubble economy going bust. With the economic downturn continuing to seriously affect the Western world, the cricket economy too, it is expected, will take a hit. With peoples spending powers limited and with companies shutting down every month, in stadia advertisers are counting their pounds before agreeing to be a part of the spectacle. Even advertising rates are being tailored to suit the downturn and this is where the reliance on the sub-continent, still relatively stable in comparison, increases.

In effect, this means that India and Pakistan need to play well if the huge amount invested by the broadcaster is to be recovered. With a prime time start in India for most games, ESS has already set the stage for a high eyeball, high viewership event. Only if India or Pakistan crash out at group stage, as had happened in the Caribbean in the 2007 World Cup, will advertisersinterest in the tournament nosedive.

In fact, it can be argued that the World Cups in 1999 and 2003, in England and South Africa respectively, were economic success stories because Pakistan (1999) and India (2003) made it to the finals. During the 2003 World Cup, market consultants in India had estimated a total advertising spending over the six weeks as something like $222 million more than the net profit that Indias largest private sector company Reliance Industries posted in the first quarter of the financial year 2002-03.

Interestingly, in a time scale less than the length of Sachin Tendulkars career, the nature and economy of world cricket has fundamentally changed. In 1992, the Indian cricket board, now the richest cricket body in the world, had a deficit of $150,000. And in 1997, the ICC, crickets apex body, had a little more than $25,000 in its coffers. Once cricket administrators decided to marry cricket with television, the scenario changed. The cricket market became an Indian monopoly, unique to any international sport, and within months the schedule of cricket worldwide was driven by the needs of multiple television players, each wanting a share of the Indian pie.

And this is precisely why the debate that is current raging in India, about whether the T-20 World Cup will lose a bit of its sheen with the IPL having ended just days before the competition on 24 May 2009, is so very relevant for the ICC. Those arguing in favour say that people are now tired of watching T-20 action. 59 IPL matches have satiated peoples thirst for slam bang cricket and the World Cup will surely be the victim goes this argument.

However, the ICC can draw comfort from the fact that such arguments fail to take note of the reality that the IPL lost millions of eyeballs because of its clash with the elections. During the last day of voting on May 13 and the run up to the counting on May 16 and ultimately the swearing in on May 22, most, if not all Indian television channels were concerned with broadcasting election news. And on May 16, the day the UPA swept to power, the only news on television was how the worlds largest democracy had reposed faith in a party that has promised us all a secular polity and a stable economy. Even networks like CBC and NBC, which I get to watch in my apartment here in Toronto, were full of Indian election news showing happy faces of Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi thanking the nation for the mandate. None was bothered about what happened to Sachin Tendulkars Mumbai Indians and why they werent able to make the IPL semi-finals.

Theres little doubt that the intensity of IPL coverage was muted in 2009 compared to the inaugural edition of the competition. In contrast, by the time the T-20 World

Cup starts next week, the Indian television viewer, tired of politics and politicians, would love to move on to cricket once again.

Statistically speaking, most Indian news channels, and we have more than 50 delivering news to us every day 24/7, had deputed 10 or more reporters to cover the first edition of the IPL. This was possible because most of these have active and fairly large bureaus in the cities in which the tournament was played. By contrast, most news channels sent a solitary reporter to South Africa. Again, some like Times Now even dropped their dedicated IPL shows in the period 6 May-20 May to accommodate extensive election programming.

The picture for the world T-20 will be different. Cost of travel to the UK is far cheaper in comparison to South Africa and most of our newscasters already have dedicated crews in London. In fact, the ICCs media team has had a harrowing time of late trying to accommodate a huge number of Indian requests for media accreditation, twice as large in comparison to any other country. Inevitably, this will mean more coverage from the grounds in England. Also, with elections now a thing of the past, T-20 coverage, especially if India starts off well, will occupy centre stage for the entire duration of the tournament between 5-21 June, resulting in ringing cash registers for the ICC, the ECB and the host broadcaster, not to mention the several news and sports channels in India.

So while IPL had the advantage of the first mover, the advantage lost considerable sheen in the political context in which it is was staged. Finally, it must be asserted that there isnt any substitute for nationalism yet. India, which goes into the tournament as favourites and defending champions will surely ensure that the tournament is a huge draw to start with. The million strong South Asian diaspora in the UK will throng the grounds in large numbers, the warm up game between India and Pakistan at the Oval on 3 June for example was a sell out months earlier, significantly influencing the cost-spend ratio for the tournament. Also, it is essential to note that with most venues staging two super eight games back to back on the same day, cost of tickets too arent going to be much of a factor, a point emphasised by tournament director Steve Elworthy in a recent interview. People will, more often than not, feel that they have earned their moneys worth.

To top it all, if India successfully manages to defend its crown, theres little doubt that the world T-20 will be the countrys second biggest news event of the year following the elections. The hangover will continue well into July and a billion plus will inevitably be gripped by a nationalist hysteria that IPL II was devoid off. In such a scenario, the advertising rates for the semi-final and final will sky-rocket and Lords will surely witness some hectic police activity with black marketers making merry. Tickets currently valued at 90 will sell for at least three times the cost and airline companies too will find it difficult to accommodate the sudden increase in traffic from India. It is this direct proximity between nationalism and the market that the ICC is desperately trying to appropriate in trying to combat the all encompassing sense of gloom and dejection.

The writer is a cricket historian