The Business of Cricket

It all starts from the performance on the field, without it nothing else matters. Charisma, rivalries and media reach expand the sports market.

Famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once termed cricket as a game played by 22 flannelled fools and watched by 22000. The great dramatist’s banter sounds nothing more than an asynchronous, witty remark as it appears so out of whack with the current scale of the game.

Authors Vijay Santhanam and Shyam Balasubramanian, equipped with their vast experience in sports marketing, unveil a heartfelt book.’The Business of Cricket’ covers the transformation of Indian cricket from the late 70s era when cricket, for both fame and money, competed with the likes of hockey and badminton to its present day avatar of a billion dollar behemoth that virtually reigns supreme. It sheds light on how cricket captured the imagination of not just the ordinary mortals but also that of advertisers and marketers. Indian audience’s indefatigable passion towards cricket turned the game into a holy grail of sorts which the marketers pursue all year long.

For those who grew up watching live cricket on Doordarshan (the Indian public service broadcaster) in the 80s, this book could trigger a few nostalgic trips down the memory lane. The run-of-the-mill transmission of Doordarshan in those days inspired authors to throw tongue-in-cheek jibes at the grand ole network. Interestingly, though, while famous for its pedestrian-level coverage of cricket, Doordarshan proved instrumental to the rise of India’s first sports brands. The authors identify Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev as the two competing icons who first set in motion the wave of sports marketing in India. Gavaskar’s urbane appeal and Dev’s charismatic sway over the masses backed by their respective on-field performances resulted in both icons becoming the blue-eyed boys of advertising industry.

‘The Business of Cricket’ makes an honest effort to juxtapose the contours of the game with its marketing facets. For the post-liberalization generation, the large wedge between the humble earnings of cricketers from brand endorsements in the 80s and the disproportionate incomes of the present crop could be hard to fathom. Take, for instance, the recent sponsorship deal between Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and two sponsors for putting the sponsors’ logo on his bat. Estimated to the tune of $4.16 million, the deal presents an overwhelming figure compared to the paltry $100-$150 (not adjusted for inflation) earned by Kapil Dev for his first Palmolive endorsement back in the 80s.

I particularly enjoyed reading the chapter on the demise of Indian hockey. Far from being a national sport, today hockey sits grumpily on the periphery of the Indian sports scene. Call it a fateful coincidence, according to the authors, that Indian hockey’s golden era had ended well before the color TV ownership took off in India. One abysmal performance after another and lack of charismatic figures in the game only pushed the national game towards the brink and gradually, off everyone’s radar. While cricket made immortals out of mere humans, hockey failed to board the bandwagon.

Authors put together a brilliant account of Lalit Modi’s – the now maligned, renegade former IPL commissioner – way of doing things. An aggressive deal-maker, an astute strategist and an even better executionist, Modi paved the way for BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) riches through IPL. In an astounding valuation, a London-based brand valuation consultancy ‘Brand Finance’ priced brand IPL at $3.03 billion in 2013. The effusive cash inflow, however, only muddled the BCCI governance further and also led to the fall from grace of its once Copernican pivot, Modi.

I applaud the authors as they make no bones sounding a warning to the BCCI – whose vision and design, both appear questionable at present – to mend its ways or run the risk of losing ground to football in the coming years. A warranted warning, I believe.

‘The Business of Cricket’ is a breezy read. As a product, the book has the potential to attract both the hardcore aficionados and the non-Cricket-lovers (a rarity in India). However, the book falls short of being a definitive text on sports marketing. Don’t get me wrong, the book does cover well the association of brands with cricket over the years and cricket’s metamorphosis into a money-spinning apparatus. But among all the amusing anecdotes of the past and the branding wingding, authors lose the larger perspective of keeping focus on the economics of the game. ‘The Business of Cricket’, in my opinion, lacks the deep wisdom of an edgy, incisive business book. Nonetheless, for someone just setting out to learn the ropes of sports marketing, ‘The Business of Cricket’ provides an apt starting point.