Till yesterday, as the undisputed monarch of the market, cricket defied economics. Given its strong sway over millions of committed fans --- and the capacity to connect with consumers — it was considered a recession-proof product. And such was its power, it appeared, cricket’s demand always exceeded supply. Everyone thought India could never have enough of cricket.
Cricket’s golden age ended recently when market forces triggered a process of correction. Signals suggesting change emerged earlier this year when the Indian Premier League (IPL) received a lukewarm response but, at that time, the blip was dismissed as post-World Cup fatigue. The Champions League was snubbed by fans (matches featuring Indian IPL teams were rejected) and once India suffered humiliation this summer in England, there was no mistaking that a crisis was brewing.
England played to empty stands even in cricket-crazy Kolkata and though ticket rates were slashed, the brutal message was the spectators were just not interested.
Other indicators confirmed the bazaar was thanda. Marketers could not offload properties, perimeter advertising board prices crashed and broadcast rights holders struggled to sell airtime. The disturbing trend continued when the BCCI's internet/mobile rights were spurned by buyers despite strenuous efforts.
Though experts linked this sharp downslide to a general slowdown in the economy, others were of the view that cricket too was responsible for the situation it found itself in. For long, it ruthlessly leveraged its monopoly position to extract top value, but, as Rahul Dravid pointed out, fans cannot be taken for granted forever; meaningless matches have to be scrapped and the schedule rationalised.
Also, price restructuring should be a priority to make investment in cricket sustainable. Otherwise, there will be repeats of Kochi and Nimbus. Going forward, cricket will have to show greater sensitivity to the market while taking key economic decisions because potential partners have alternate options available to them. The ground reality is, there is more than one claimant now for the sponsorship rupee.
In a twisted manner, by successfully running a vibrant IPL, cricket has created competition for itself. Others understand that, if professionally managed, commercially driven sports properties can work. Already, leagues have sprung up in motor racing, boxing, hockey, kabaddi and football and plans are afoot to start similar endeavours in tennis, golf, wrestling and rifle shooting.
While none of these can possibly match cricket's size or sweep, it is undisputed that in the future, market forces will shape cricket and not meekly submit to its muscle.