The first half of 2011 showed all was well in cricketing heaven. India were the number one ranked Test team who had drawn a tough series in South Africa and were preparing to climb another important peak. No team had won the One-day World Cup at home, and despite the immense pressure of expectation, MS Dhoni's weary men went on to triumph in April. As thousands of delirious Indian fans poured onto the streets to celebrate, it appeared as if cricket had touched a new high.
However, six months later the bubble had burst. England were always a tough Test side but the 4-0 thrashing and the failure to win a single match on that demanding tour suddenly made Indian fans feel jittery. The One-day series thrashing of England and the easy victory over the West Indies that followed at home was seen as, at best, par for the course.
While the England tour robbed all that was gained by the team in the World Cup, what came off the pitch sent an ominous message to those connected with the game, especially those plotting its commercial course.That came when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) snapped the television rights deal with Nimbus for non-payment of dues. While the broadcasters were penalised for a non-professional approach to the deal, the admission that they were unable to raise the vast sums of money should set alarm bells ringing for the near future.
Nimbus Communications chief Harish Thawani wrote to the BCCI on November 21, excerpts from which said: "As you would be aware, the last few months have been a tumultuous phase for the economy in general and the advertising industry in specific. Those extraordinary circumstances have severely impacted the business of our licensee broadcasters in India and across the world."
The Board pulled the plug on December 12.
Given the feudal way in which the BCCI functions, no broadcaster was willing to come on record, but HT spoke to a host of them who felt the rights deal was over-priced and financially things could get tougher. Cricket, by far the dominating sport in the country, had enjoyed a win-win equation with sponsors and fans for well over a decade. The insatiable hunger for the game and its trappings has been such that India has generated much of the revenue for the global game with the International Cricket Council (ICC) also heavily dependent on the country to sell its rights. But that too appears to be in some danger.
Many felt Nimbus had paid far in excess of the market price when they renewed the rights deal two years ago. The rumblings from the market were felt when Airtel walked away from the Champions League Twenty20 to tie up with the inaugural Indian Formula One Grand Prix in October. Although Nokia stepped in as title sponsor, the Airtel pullout suggested the wind had changed direction; that cricket may not be seen as the end of the world by big-ticket corporate houses.
The BCCI's attempt to sell the mobile rights had not fructified. While the Board is trying to legally extract the guarantee money following the annulled Nimbus deal, market watchers are waiting to see how broadcasters value the deal when the BCCI sells the rights afresh.
Industry sources say the BCCI cannot expect to match that sum in their new deal. In fact, media planners have forecast that cricket rates could fall by over 15 per cent in 2012. With the global economic slowdown having an effect in India, cricket cannot escape, they feel.
Some say the BCCI should share the blame. Australia and South Africa rights went for around R1000 crore while the Indian board got double that amount. However, they say, while Australia and South Africa make sure the quality of cricket is better - through good pitches, quality grounds, better facilities for fans, backing of technology to assist DRS etc - that is not the case in India.
They feel the BCCI oraganises too many meaningless matches, making it difficult for the rights holder to sell them profitably. Besides, top players routinely miss such games, thanks to a packed schedule, which hits TRP ratings and spectator interest.
If broadcasters are under strain, that will hit the quality of telecast. When they are forced to pack in too many advertisements, it only results in their spilling over into the match and the viewer is often forced to miss the first ball of the over. It also means the number of replays is reduced.
An industry source said the BCCI cannot be blamed if the broadcasters are willing to cough up hefty sums to pocket the biggest rights deal in the game. However, they do feel the Board is not being professional. The BCCI is totally commerce driven and does not pay enough attention to ensure the well being of the game.
"The problem is overkill, meaningless series, lopsided contests and players missing these series," one source said, pointing out to the 'self-goal' being scored by the Board.
"Any other country would have savoured the World Cup win for six months. But we killed it in just four days by playing the IPL."