Cricket commerce

IN the last few months we have all been rolled over not by cricket or cricketers but by cricket commerce. While earlier cricket reporting focussed on personalities (and communicated all manner of spicy details about them), recent writing has shifted focus in a major way. Instead of runs scored or colas drunk or jeans worn, what is thrown in our face is a series of figures - all of which pertain to cash. Suddenly, in cricket, it is raining money, and the numbers are really serious.

It all started with the contract controversy, and the protection sought (and obtained) from the ICC by sponsors who put a staggering $550 million on the table. So far so good because these were authentic figures, released by the beneficiaries, the ICC itself.

But this was followed by much kite flying and wild speculation. As the Indian players dug their heels in (on a matter of principle and integrity) it was said that almost $400 million of ICC's booty was looted (this might be a harsh word, but please excuse) from India, the reverse swing of capital from India to England, likened to a modern day version of East India Company's infamous exploitation a century ago. That India funds world cricket is a known fact but are the figures being tossed around correct? Who knows.

Once the spiral of speculation about figures commenced there was no stopping it. All kinds of staggering deals were mentioned, ranging from LG's proposed ad spend for the World Cup to what Sony paid (around $250 million) and what it was charging for a 30 second TV spot (approximately 5000 dollars). Reports indicated unhappy sponsors were up in arms because of steep rates; LG decided to abandon plans for buying airtime which forced networks to calculate their guaranteed losses.

More interesting than the woes of a troubled TV channel was the swirling conjecture about the economics of players' endorsements. Overnight, it would appear, an industry was born which made intelligent (?) guesses about the financial figures in this game. How much advertising money was riding on India's top players? Who makes what? Does Sachin charge more than a crore for a one year deal? If that is the benchmark where do Ganguly, Dravid, Sehwag, Yuveraj and Kaif fit in?

Of course, the market gurus had all the answers, they readily put out details. Some of these appeared fairly accurate, others were clearly off the mark because beyond a point nobody knows and even if someone does, he would not reveal such sensitive information. But so intense was the curiosity, and the interest, that newspapers /magazines faithfully reproduced anything - that too on the front pages - about cricket's commercial angle.

Indications that the contract controversy could lead to law suits led to another round of guess work. The figures, inevitably, were always in millions of dollars and these were repeatedly revised to ultimately settle between $10 to 50 million. Alarmed that it could be crippled by claims for compensation from aggrieved sponsors in the future, the BCCI sought protection from the ICC, a move which led to more estimates about the amounts involved. But this time at least there was admirable transparency in the statements made. What trouble could we land into? asked one party. We don't know what will happen in the future, replied the other.

Another, probably the final, twist occurred when Sahara withdrew from the Indian team sponsorship arrangement following a dispute with the ICC. Once again, the public was quickly informed about the income of the BCCI (close to 50 lakhs per game), the share of players (60 % of this) and other commercial details.

As commerce dominates cricket coverage, an impression spreads in everyone's minds that players are raking it in. Top stars earn enough to attract the attention of Income-tax authorities, they have fat endorsement contracts and in their garages are parked BMWs, Mercedes and even a glittering Ferrari. But this is not the norm; seniors like Laxman and Kumble earn almost zero from non-cricket sources.

Laxman has a monumental 281 to his credit (the best innings played by an Indian, ever) and Kumble took 10 in a Test innings but in cricket's complex bazaar they lack the buzz that generates cash. As with tennis, and Kournikova, it is not what you do but who you are that matters more. International players are monetarily comfortable only on account of the Rs. 2-2.5 lakh match fees they get from the BCCI. This apart there is nothing.

What the average first class player receives is much less. Ranji match allowances are low, a player takes home a pittance after playing a full season that stretches six months. None of the 500 first class players can support themselves on cricket, the meagre money is sufficient only to buy a couple of BDM/SG/SS/ Vampire bats (average cost approx 5000 rupees) and a pair of spikes. In Indian cricket the top 20 are rich (filthy rich by Indian sports standards) but the man next in line is below the poverty line.

That Indian cricket is flush with riches but has an impoverished domestic structure is a baffling paradox. Why must a sport which enjoys such enormous support allow talent to slip away, searching for jobs and security? When sport is seen as a hobby the commitment to excellence is missing, absence of money robs competition of the edge that raises standards. Players play as amateurs, have fun, enjoy themselves and then sit behind desks in some office, they look after their families/kids, all of which is possible only by erasing cricket from their lives.

If Ranji players had decent contracts (as in England, Australia and elsewhere) the good ones would stay in the game and work hard. And whenever domestic competition is tough, the mismatch between Ranji and international cricket is less pronounced.

Let us not get taken in by the big numbers everyone is talking about. Indian cricket reflects the skewed distribution of wealth in Indian society - a few are very rich but the rest are struggling.