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Pitching it right: The great Indian cricket money game

EconomicReforms25YearsOfChange Updated: Jul 29, 2016 01:38 IST
N Ananthanarayanan
Manmohan Singh

Reforms in Indian cricket, which began with the 1983 World Cup win, got a big fillip in 1991. Since then, the country’s clout in the game has become unparalleled. (File photo)

When finance minister Manmohan Singh set the country on the path to liberalisation in 1991, he also laid the ground for India’s emergence as the financial power house of world cricket, flexing some serious muscle on and off the field.

Indian cricket does owe its initial expansion to the sports version of geopolitics but it was the “open era” that brought mega bucks and the clout.

The country’s rise as a cricketing power began almost a decade before 1991. The seeds had begun to grow before a 16-year-old with an unruly curly mop burst on to the scene and captivated the cricket world with his batting genius.

Summer of ’83

It was the 1983 World Cup. India had confounded even the most ardent of supporters by reaching the final against West Indies, odds-on favourite and winner of the previous two editions.

With demand for complimentary passes suddenly going up, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) officials, including president NKP Salve, approached the organisers.

They were not only refused the passes but were also left angry by the brusque behaviour of the English cricket officials. England and Australia lost their veto power in the global cricket body ICC in the early 1990s but the spark for the tectonic shift in the cricket world order was lit that summer.

The upset win over West Indies in the Lord’s final only added weight to India’s demand to jointly stage the 1987 World Cup with Pakistan, and manoeuvring in the corridors of cricket power settled it.

The timing of the 1983 win couldn’t have been better. The decline of hockey, the national sport, aided the growth of cricket. It was also fuelled by the spread of television that took the game to the remotest parts of the country.

‘Sach’ a pleasure

When Sachin Tendulkar arrived in 1989, the game’s commercial potential was untapped. Sunil Gavaskar sold suitings and Kapil Dev shaving cream and soft drinks in TV ads. That was also the time the state broadcaster Doordarshan monopolised telecast rights.

As liberalisation began to take root, cricket was ready for mega bucks. Three factors played a big role.

The BCCI had the template of Kerry Packer’s commercial model to refer to. The Australian TV tycoon had jolted the establishment by organising the World Series Cricket, introducing coloured clothing and day-night games under floodlights.

In Tendulkar, India found a match-winner, a goodwill ambassador and a player with mass appeal – a sponsor’s dream. And BCCI secretary Jagmohan Dalmiya, a shrewd businessman, saw the potential in selling TV rights.

With an audience running into millions, companies found a surefire winner in sponsorship as the Indian board strengthened its financial muscle.

The beginning was modest. One of Tendulkar’s contracts with a major brand in the 1993-95 period was worth only Rs 15 lakh, says an industry insider.

But soon his brand value zoomed, with multinational giants such as Pepsi, Coca Cola, Samsung and LG pumping in big money to take the cricket route to reach out to millions of TV viewers and thousands queuing up at the stadiums.

Having a ball

Pepsi’s ambush marketing tactic during the 1996 World Cup — jointly hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and sponsored by Coca Cola — by floating a banner into match venues with the message “nothing official about it” was an instant hit. It also underlined the value of India’s cricket economy — an opportunity no one wanted to pass up.

The Indian board’s commercial clout was at play again ahead of the 2003 World Cup. The players, endorsing brands competing with official sponsors, refused to abide by the ICC’s image clauses. The world body was forced to ease the norms to ensure India’s participation and the tournament, though hosted in South Africa, was a big hit as India went all the way to the final.

Four years later, India’s first-round elimination proved calamitous for the West Indies as thousands cancelled match tickets and room reservations.

Though Indian cricket has lurched from one controversy to another, its commercial lure is intact. The Indian Premier League signed a $1-billion TV rights deal for 10 years in 2008.

The IPL brand, despite the exit of more than one title sponsors, is still strong and a new TV rights deal is expected to be equally fetching if not bigger.

Weak markets and the 2013 spot-fixing scandal have dented the league’s image but not its popularity. “No other sport gets you the eyeballs. The viewership is high and the fans are so passionate,” said an industry insider.

“The IPL has turned cricket into a year-long event and the calendar is packed,” he said, referring to the T20 event being held in off-season months of April and May. For advertisers, viewers are widespread — other sports, entertainment and movies, “but the highest TRP is always for cricket”.

The viewership was the reason companies were paying money which even they know was steep, he said.

That explains the astronomical sums Test skipper Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni, the limited-overs captain, command for endorsements.

Will cricket face open market blues going forward with IPL copycats being planned for others sports? “Which game has the viewership and is being telecast is going to be a critical factor.”