Of sponsors and modernisation

MOTERA showed that Indian cricket is finally waking up to meeting the increasing needs of modern sport.

AMRIT MATHUR

Aunshuman Gaekwad is working to improve the Gujarat Ranji team. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

MOTERA showed that Indian cricket is finally waking up to meeting the increasing needs of modern sport. Till now cricket stadiums were nothing more than huge concrete stages where cricketers came to perform. Completely overlooked was the fact that a cricket match nowadays is the hub around which many activities are based. With sponsors/TV networks/sports promoters/event managers/advertisers getting involved, cricket complexes must offer all kinds of facilities for them to function efficiently.

To fulfill these requirements, and those of spectators, Lord's/MCG/Wanderers have become plush stadiums full of restaurants, conference halls and hospitality boxes. At these venues spectators are comfortable; corporate hot shots entertain clients and transact business in supreme luxury.

In India, the realisation that a cricket match goes beyond cricket is only just beginning to sink in. No surprise therefore that most stadiums have a lot of ground to cover, many are woefully deficient in basic facilities for players. Only few have practice nets away from the main arena, a demarcated viewing area for players is rare and very often the dressing rooms are cramped.

Motera, however, has undergone amazing transformation lately and after the first phase of upgradation it ranks close to Mohali as one of India's best. Already, the cricket facilities are top grade; soon remaining stands will be covered and the new complex opposite the pavilion will house the media and corporate boxes.

This ambitious programme is powered by President Narhari Amin, who is determined to complete the project by next season. We want top grade facilities, he says, because Gujaratis love chaat, ice cream, films but cricket more than anything else. Apart from infrastructure we are working to improve our team's performance. For that Aunshuman Gaekwad is the coach of the Ranji side.

Actually, besides the polish and paint of Motera, it is heartening to note things are progressing in Indian cricket. The team is well prepared and well supported, plenty of young talent is emerging, there is intense competition for slots. Only yesterday there was growing concern about a replacement for Srinath — now there are half a dozen youngsters staking a claim for opening India's bowling.

Proof of Indian cricket's resurgence — and sound health — is new sponsors are on board to fund the game with hefty injections of cash. Challenger and Irani were sponsored by TVS and the current series is backed by Videocon, the electronics giant with 29% market share in the competitive TV industry. Over the next three years Videocon will pump in close to 30 crores directly into Indian cricket, and if advertising costs are added the figure is substantially higher.

Such financial support is crucial because hard cash contributes to players' welfare and allows the sport to grow. Cricket in India is what it is because of its vast pool of fans, its superstar cricketers and the performances of its team. But cricket is also a colossal industry which generates money — the BCCI has successfully tapped this commercial potential, marketed the sport cleverly and maximised available opportunities.

Which is why suggestions that cricket could be threatened by hockey tomorrow or some other sport the day after are crazily off the mark. One, it is not a hockey versus cricket situation at all, each game has its level and there is space for everyone, even kabaddi or kho kho. Two, cricket stands alone in India in terms of solid fan support, sponsors see this connect between cricket and consumers. Money from Pepsi or Videocon comes because sponsors respect the enormous clout of Indian cricket.

Why cricket is able to maintain its tight hold is not difficult to understand. Cricket enjoys a terrific reputation, it is upmarket, classy and economically attractive. Corporates, fully aware of this ground reality, don't think twice before putting up big money to associate with Indian cricket.

Sponsorship is not only about pushing sales, about selling one more TV or another crate of cola. This game is larger, it is about acquiring an image, about creating goodwill and building a brand name. A lot of companies have a lot of money, and there are plenty of rich corporate heads — for anyone wanting to move up, climb the social ladder and gain wider recognition there is no better or quicker way than latching on to cricket. Of course, Hindi films rival cricket's reach but they suffer from an image problem, because of that Videocon chooses the cricket route to strengthen their brand.

Strangely, sports sponsorships don't always work commercially, often decisions about investing in cricket are driven by preferences of the top management. Explains an executive: While economics is a factor, most times the boss decides by instinct, intuition and impulse. If he wants it, and the company can afford it, all else is conveniently forgotten, budgets are adjusted and money pulled out from some head to fund this expense. All with the understanding that, regardless of cost, you can't go wrong with cricket. There is little fear of scoring a duck, it is always win-win.

It is this comfort that encourages people to put money into cricket at various levels. This season many Ranji sides have found team sponsors, a wide range that includes a poultry firm in Bombay to a chyawanprash company in Calcutta. In times to come this trend will intensify, more teams will find commercial support and hopefully more money will reach the average first class cricketers.

Unlikely this happens tomorrow because before that several things must fall in place. First, cricket must be taken seriously, managed better and a fair share delivered to sponsors to make them feel like genuine partners instead of treating them as mere financers. Also, spectators deserve a better deal, they must be provided basic comforts at cricket venues as Motera and others are now doing. Most crucially: do whatever possible to retain the support of fans who paint their faces and come to the ground, the kids who wait patiently outside dressing rooms and team hotels to catch a fleeting glimpse of their heroes. If the fans defect to other sports the cricket edifice could crumble.