An edited version of this piece appeared here in today's Wall Street Journal.
The world of cricket has long been a small, cozy place, where change is resisted by the stalwarts of tradition. Now a new cricket board in India is shaking things up--taking advantage of the world’s largest fan base to put the sport on a more commercial footing.
England and Australia may play more matches. But it’s in India that the money really rolls in. With more than 500 million fans, it’s no surprise that 10% of the $2.8 billion spent on advertising in India last year was cricket related. When the national team travels overseas, advertisers are quick to follow them, snapping up prime promotional spots in stadiums wherever Indian teams play. As a result, more than half the sport’s global advertising revenue comes from Indian companies.
You’d never guess that from looking at the state of the country’s cricket league. Fans are forced to make do with uncomfortable concrete or wooden seats, with no shade from the baking Indian sun. Many of the stadiums are in a dangerous state of disrepair. In one case, a wall collapsed during an international game in the Indian city of Nagpur a decade ago, killing eight spectators.
Indian cricketers fare little better. Until recently, top players received as little as $88 for each day they played, with a similar amount paid into their retirement fund. Although that’s now been increased to $2,277 a game--its still far less than even junior cricketers in England earn.
Businessman turned cricket administrator Lalit Modi aims to change that. Mr. Modi and his colleagues took control of the Board for Control of Cricket in India, the sport’s national governing body, in a bitter election contest among India’s state cricket associations last year. They’ve accused their predecessors of allowing the sport to slip into this state of disrepair by not investing enough in the game. “There is no doubt that the [Indian] board was underselling itself,” Mr. Modi, now vice chairman of the board, said in an interview with the weekly newsmagazine Tehelka.
Now, Indian cricket is being reorganized along modern business lines. Sponsoring and merchandising deals worth $113 million were struck last December. That was followed in February by a $619 million four-year deal for global broadcast rights for all India’s international matches in India with Nimbus, a television-marketing company. Then in April, Zee TV, an Indian channel, paid $219 million for rights to a further 25 international matches that would be played at venues outside India. These additional matches would be played in Malaysia, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States - in other words, places with a large non-resident Indian population.
All of this is no more than you’d expect from an entrepreneur who observed the American sports model up close during his time in university there. Upon his return, Mr. Modi entered the sports business, and helped launch ESPN in India. He currently has ambitious plans to launch a comprehensive website - the BCCI currently has no website - with complete match footage of every game India plays.
But the jury is still out on how much of this new revenue will find its way back into the game. Editorials in Indian sports newspapers have been asking sharp questions about why the game doesn’t seem to be benefiting as yet. Some of the board’s key pledges--such as employment of professional management--staff have yet to be fulfilled. Mr. Modi and his colleagues respond that it takes time to implement changes.
If the money does filter through, the benefits would be significant. As a career choice the sport has always been, at best, a gamble in India. In contrast to England or Australia, Indian league players rarely make news, and are more often forgotten. Greater salaries, especially at lower levels of the game, would attract more players, and benefit the game as a whole. More batsmen and bowlers will pursue the sport, knowing that even if the bright lights of fame elude them, they can still enjoy a comfortable living, and go on to become coaches or umpires.
After decades of neglect, Indian cricket may be on the verge of a brighter future. But the verdict is still out on whether its new cricket board will deliver on its promises.