Transformation of cricket from sport to business is complete – Moneycontrol

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The traditional opening ceremony with which most global sporting events are kicked off was scrapped at the last moment, though for a later game between India and Pakistan at Ahmedabad, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) arranged a special “musical odyssey”. The first few matches of the tournament were played to half-empty stadiums. Even India’s opening match against Australia in Chennai saw empty seats, pointing to a massive bungling of the ticketing if not anything worse. The outfield as well as the facilities for the spectators came in for withering criticism from one of Indian cricket’s most respected voices, Sunil Gavaskar.
Yet, the 13th edition of the 50-over ICC Cricket World Cup could afford to ignore all such blemishes because the tournament was already a massive success even before the first ball had been bowled. The BCCI had already raked in millions and as long as the boards, the teams, the players and vitally, the sponsors, make money, the cricket hardly matters.
Judging by the numbers, everyone’s making money, so the spectators be damned. Disney Star, the official broadcaster of the event for both TV and digital platforms, has lined up a galaxy of sponsors, including Hindustan Unilever, Mahindra & Mahindra and Coca-Cola. The money earned from them is presumably enough to allow the company to stream live coverage of all the matches for free to mobile phone users in India.
For the participating teams, too, there are enough financial incentives. The winner will receive $4 million from the overall $10 million pot, while there’s $2 million for the runners-up. As compared to a sporting event like the Soccer World Cup, the money is small. Argentina, the winners of the last FIFA World Cup in Qatar, received a record $42 million in prize money.
Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the ICC equivalent for soccer, allocated $440 million in prize money for the tournament. Even that sum paled before its own budget of $4.6 billion in 2022, with broadcasting rights contributing $2.6 billion alone in income. By contrast, Star, which had bagged the broadcasting rights for the various World Cups in cricket, paid just $2.02 billion for the eight-year period ending 2023. Disney Star topped that with a $3 billion offer for the next four years which includes the rights to the one-day and T20 World Cups besides the Test championships.
Cricket may not be there yet but it is fast catching up. One factor holding it back is its growing identity crisis. Which is the real version of the game? Is it Test cricket, the 50-over game or T20? Judging by the money pouring in and the spectator interest, it is this last that is grabbing all the eyeballs, and with it the investment dollars.
The golden goose, of course, is the Indian Premier League (IPL) whose annual broadcast revenues are now on par with those of top global sporting leagues like the American National Football League (NFL) and the English Premier League. Just the advertising revenue for this year’s edition crossed Rs 10,000 crore. Getting a stake in one of the 10 IPL teams is seen as an exciting business opportunity. Two years ago, RedBird Capital Partners, which has a stake in Italian club AC Milan, picked up a 15 percent stake for $37.5 million in Rajasthan Royals at a valuation of $250 million. Other PE firms like CVC Capital Partners have also bought into the lucrative league in expectation of exponential returns. The IPL has changed the economics of the game in quite the same way that Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer’s breakaway World Series Cricket did in 1977.
The vast sums to be made in the shortest version of the game have also turned cricket from a game played for love into a purely business proposition. T20 is a made-for-TV – and increasingly for mobile screens – 3-hour extravaganza that rewards those who can make a quickfire 40, over those who can grind through for five hours to compile a 50. For the bowlers the nightmare isn’t the inability to pick up wickets but the failure to stem runs. Step into community parks today and you can no longer see multiple games with players of varying skills but equal gusto. All the players are away to work on their skills at academies that have sprung up all over the place and have replaced the maidans that produced players like a certain Sachin Tendulkar. At these academies eager parents spend vast sums on their wards’ coaching. Cricket is now a career and the academies are part of the business ecosystem.
So when at the recently concluded Asia Cup in Sri Lanka, India, the moneybags of the game with its vast television audience and eager sponsors, faced the threat of being eliminated before the finals because of rain, the rules were quickly bent to add an extra day for its game against Pakistan. The protests of eminent cricketers like Sri Lanka’s World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga were simply ignored.
The message is clear – it is only about the money.
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