From Packer to Modi and Srinivasan – The ‘Crowd’ Changing World Cricket

In 1975 Kerry Packer was just one of millions around the world who sat transfixed by broadcasts of the first World Cup ODI tournament in England. The drama and quality of the play was what stuck in the minds of most fans, but for the wealthy Packer it also sparked in his mind the seeds of an idea for a significant commercial opportunity for his television station.

With its natural advertising breaks and strong supporter base, cricket seemed to him a natural and profitable fit with his network, and Packer became determined to wrest the broadcast rights away from the national public broadcaster, the ABC.

Having had his advances so emphatically rejected by the Australian Cricket Board, Packer took the commercially brave, and revolutionary step of establishing his own international competition, secretly signing much of the world’s cricketing elite and tapping into their undercurrent of discontent resulting from low pay and lack of appreciation from their respective cricket Boards.

Thus, in 1977, World Series Cricket was born in direct competition to the establishment game.

Having shorn the cricketing world of the cream of its elite players, and most importantly their crowds, the Packer revolution was remarkably successful and within just two short seasons, a rapprochement (or some might say surrender treaty) was brokered with the ACB, and having secured the long-term broadcast and marketing rights to the game in Australia, Kerry released the players from his employ and returned them to their national teams.

Although normal service in terms of the cricket might have resumed, aspects of the game and most particularly the way it was administered had changed forever.

In a cricketing sense, although he certainly did not invent the form, Packer further popularised ODI cricket and made it a part of the cricketing mainstream by increasing its appeal to spectators at the ground, and more importantly to the viewers at home, through innovations such as the 50 over format, coloured clothing with player’s names on it, night cricket and the white ball that enabled it, and fielding restrictions aimed at increasing the number of boundaries.

However, far more importantly, Packer changed the way in which the game was administered forever as the elected amateur officials of the ACB were quickly supplanted by individuals and groups whose cultural capital came from legal, media and business interests rather than the game itself.

It was perhaps unsurprising then that the first ‘post war’ act of the ACB was to postpone the scheduled tour of India and allow a further series of lucrative ODIs between Australia, England and the West Indies.  For a Board financially weakened by the WSC conflict this may have been pragmatic and sensible, but there can be little doubt of Packer’s unseen influence at hand as he sought to generate profits not only for his television network, but also for his specially created marketing vehicle charged with promoting the game.

The famous English cricket writer Neville Cardus famously held in an essay that crowds matter in cricket. It has largely always been the case, and particularly from the late 1800’s the literature is replete with references to private and national tours planned and staged with the aim of attracting the largest crowds and the profit motive firmly in mind.

Certainly it was the huge crowds and viewing audience that WSC attracted in its second season (especially when contrasted with those of the establishment cricket) that swung the battle and advantage towards Packer in the late 1970’s.

It was a poignant reminder of the importance of the crowd, but it was a crowd very different to that of Cardus’ time, numbering not just those who came through the turnstiles, but also the vast unseen masses huddled in front of their television screens at home.

Indeed over time it has become this vast unseen home audience that has largely become the ‘crowd’, and it is this ‘crowd’, accessed only through broadcasters who pay ever-increasing sums for the privilege, that is shaping the financial landscape of cricket, and with it the power dynamics at play.

India is one of the most populous nations on earth, a nation whose love for the game of cricket is perhaps unsurpassed. Over the past decade or so a fortunate confluence of social and economic factors; increasing globalisation, the expansion of new and traditional media in all its forms, and the rapid growth of the Indian economy and emergence of a rising middle class; have provided the framework necessary to unlock the monetary value of this passion.

Like Packer, Lalit Modi and N. Srinivasan, did not invent T20 cricket, but they capitalised upon this confluence of social and economic factors via the BCCI to popularise the game and make it part of the sporting mainstream via the IPL. By any measure it has been a spectacular financial success with the combined purchase price of the nine current franchises totalling $1.145B, broadcast rights attracting revenue of $1.6B over 10 years, sponsorship revenues of well over $50m annually, and an estimated brand value for the competition of almost $4B.

In many ways it is the logical culmination of the revolution started by Packer – just on steroids and with a far more nakedly shown nexus between the Board and its commercial interests, as demonstrated in the inherent conflict of having as chairman of the BCCI the owner of the IPL franchise, the Chennai Super Kings.

However, nothing could demonstrate the fact that crowds matter so emphatically and the commercial opportunities available to the game via the vast Indian broadcast audience than the IPL, and it has made tours by the Indian team the hottest and most valuable in the game, with rival Boards captive to the rivers of gold that they provide.

If you don’t believe me take for instance the case of Cricket Australia. In their Annual Report 2011/12, CA reported revenues of $260M for the year, up some $96M from the previous season, a fact almost solely attributed to the increase in broadcasting rights revenue arising from India’s tour of Australia.

Now if the power of the Indian crowd can make such a marked difference to the fortunes of a stable and successful Board such as CA, imagine for a moment the impact such a tour would have on the fortunes of less financially robust cricketing nations such as Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the West Indies ?

It is therefore little wonder that the BCCI, in its role as the game’s primary paymaster, is seeking a greater say in the running of the game, and that fellow ICC members are enabling this via a series a clumsily constructed compromises.

It is a long list but to provide just a few examples, take the ratification of a dedicated international window for the IPL to enable the cream of world cricket to participate, the recent shenanigans surrounding the election of Laxman Sivaramakrishnan to the ICC players committee, and of course the compromise around the use of DRS in the game.

This is perhaps the way of capitalism and certainly the impact of the BCCI has not been all bad. In fact, in some ways it has been transformative, as the vast revenues and popularised formats it has brought have allowed the game to expand and take root in more countries than ever before, and allowed the Boards of full member countries to invest heavily in infrastructure and promotion of the sport to the next generation in a sports market more competitive and cluttered than at any time in history.

It has also, via the IPL and the other domestic T20 competitions it has spawned, enabled significantly improved remuneration for the players who provide the ‘content’ upon which so much of this commercial success is based as well as broadening the number of players that can benefit.

However, unlike Packer’s revolution, it has allowed players to access such financial riches without the need of national selection or the attaining of a limited number of overseas professional spots on a county roster. It has allowed players such as Chris Gayle to dictate terms of selection to his own Board, picking and choosing the international matches he can fit into his minstrel like wanderings across T20 tournaments around the globe, and leaving his impoverished Board little choice but to acquiesce lest they lose his services forever.

Left unchecked such situations could grow with unintended consequences for the fabric, traditions and history of the game. Then again, perhaps such concern is unfounded

Certainly at the time and for some years following, there was considerable opposition to Packer’s revolution and much fear of the impact it would have upon the game. The passing of time and perspective has perhaps allowed us to see that it provided much enhancement and that many of the horrors foreseen did not in the end eventuate.

Perhaps in the fullness of time we might see the current debates and issues arising from the way the BCCI is changing aspects of the cricketing landscape and its power base in a similar way ?

Of course we may not, but I do know that in such changing times, Cardus remains forever correct – in cricket ‘crowds’ matter.

Until next time … that is stumps.

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Those Were The Days – Farewelling an Old Friend in Australia’s Battle for Cricket Media Rights

In 1968 Mary Hopkins famously sang “those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end”.

It’s a timeless song and one that seems so apt today amidst media reports today suggesting Channel 9’s 33 year hold over the broadcasting of Australian cricket is becoming increasingly tenuous in the face of a contractual dispute with Cricket Australia and a strong bid from a rival network to wrest the rights away from their spiritual home.

For those of my vintage, since our early formative years, the sights and sounds of the summer have been inexorably linked to the sights and sounds of Richie, Bill, Chappelli and the late Tony Greig, their innovations such as the Weather Wall, Stump Cam, Classic Catches, and of course Richie’s range of sartorial jackets.

To imagine a summer without them, and the new faces interwoven into the coverage, could scarcely have been contemplated just a few short months ago, but it now appears that we may soon be introduced to a whole new series of friends on the 10 Network, in addition to a greatly expanded number of matches on free to air television.

Feels strange doesn’t it ? But, it seems almost inevitable that we should prepare for the loss of our dear and faithful cricketing companion if we can believe the financial offers reported.

Presently Channel 9 pays $45m annually for the contractual rights to broadcast all international cricket in Australia, including Tests, One Day Internationals, and T20 Internationals – allowing for inflation over the 7 year period of the present contract, this amounts to $52m in today’s dollars.

Supplementing this, on a recently updated deal, Fox Sports (Australia) currently pays $12m annually for the rights to all domestic competitions in Australia which includes the Ryobi Cup, Big Bash League and Sheffield Shield final.

So, adjusted for inflation, the present value of the rights is somewhere in the region of $64m annually, which over the 5 year term sought by CA, equates to $320m.

Network 10 has emerged as the main bidder in competition to Channel 9 after it recently finalised a period of exclusive negotiation with CA. Initial media reports suggested that their bid was in the region of $70m annually and would include both international AND domestic cricket in Australia, representing a 22% improvement on the current arrangement, with additional benefit of expanding the viewing audience for the BBL and domestic cricket, consistent with one of CA’s stated corporate objectives.

However, the Australian Financial Review is now reporting that the Network 10 bid is actually a $100m annual deal with additional contra contributions of $50m. If this report can be believed it would mark an extraordinary commercial outcome for CA and the game in general, representing a near doubling of annual broadcast rights revenue.

Network 10 has the cash but few viewers, where conversely Channel 9 enjoy vastly superior ratings but a far inferior financial position. As an all-inclusive bid, Network 10’s offer is a clever move, given that the existing domestic rights holder, Fox Sports (Australia), and Channel 9 are refusing to include coverage of the Ryobi Cup and Shield final, although both have submitted bids to televise the BBL. It is also an offer that the financially beleaguered Channel 9 may struggle to match, having recently been forced to enter into a complex series of arrangements with creditors and private equity partners to secure the debt-laden network’s future, in addition to paying a significant premium to retain the rights to rugby league coverage.

Under the terms of the current contract Channel 9 has first and last rights providing that they can match the ‘comparable’ offer of any rival bidder. The definition of ‘comparable’ is being hotly disputed by both Channel 9 and CA and reports have emerged today that the matter will be decided in a court action brought by CA after talks between the parties failed to resolve the impasse.

Channel 9 will argue that their first and last rights under the existing contract pertain ONLY to international matches, and that coverage of domestic cricket is covered under separate agreements. This will have the effect of muddying the waters around exactly what Network 10 has actually bid for these matches and no doubt reduce the annual figure Channel 9 would need to pay to match it and thereby retain the rights.

In such a scenario it is unlikely that they would be able to be the highest bidder for the BBL rights and Network 10 would emerge as the likely victor given its need for ratings and CA’s strategy of gaining both an improved financial return and viewing audience for the BBL.

CA will likely argue that it is their right to countenance all encompassing bids and that Channel 9 retains a first and last rights option to such a bid. If their action is successful, it will pose a very great financial strain on the incumbent, one which their balance sheet and financial shareholders might not be willing to take on regardless of their burden of history.

Clearly there is a lot at stake over coming weeks and ultimately the outcome of the court action will play a pivotal role in the end result, but for now these are clearly troubling times for the incumbent whose hold on the rights is surely more tenuous than at any time during its history.

The nation will be watching proceedings closely but given all of this it might finally be time to sadly farewell some dear old friends.

Until next time …. that is stumps.

Animal Farm – World Cricket in the Age of the BCCI

The machinations surrounding the election of the hitherto unknown Laxman Sivaramakrishnan as a players representative to the ICC has attracted a storm of controversy, debate and conspiracy theories in equal measure.

It is a sorry circumstance that has highlighted the unhealthy reliance of world cricket on the vast revenues generated by Indian cricket and the IPL, both for players and national Boards, as well as providing a stark, and ever-widening, contrast between the haves and have-nots of the global cricket family, a dichotomy ruthlessly exploited by the BCCI in its dealings with nations such as Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the West Indies through the politicking around the vote (or second, third and fourth votes depending upon your sources and viewpoint).

This article does not seek to argue the merits per se of this particular voting process, for surely since time immemorial, people, companies and nations have sought to exert influence to achieve their outcomes, and this is but another example of this. Rather, it seeks to examine what the objectives of the BCCI might be in this course of action, and to place in within a broader pattern of their behaviour over the past few years.

Over the past few years we have seen the BCCI flex its considerable financial muscle to unilaterally exempt itself from the use of DRS, refuse to countenance the recommendations of the Wolfe Report, and pressure the ICC into allowing an international window to benefit the IPL by ensuring the majority of the best international players are unreservedly available to play.

The result is that the game is placed behind the commercial interests of a small group of largely Indian business people, including the chairman of the BCCI, who reap vast profits from the enterprise. This nexus between the commercial interests of a small coterie and the actions and behaviour of the BCCI lies at the heart of this problem.

The role of the ICC and cricket Boards in general is, in the words of Kumar Sangakkara, to “protect the game’s global governance from narrow self-interest”. In this regard it is obvious that these custodians of the game, its history and growth, people have abjectly failed both it and its fans.

And why ? The answer is obvious, and it is formerly respected journalist and now paid BCCI acolyte, Harsha Bhogle, who let the cat out of the bag when he recently said on Twitter “empires weren’t built on concern for what is right for the less powerful”.

Having established its financial hegemony over the cricketing world, this small elite of business people and BCCI Board members are now seeking to solidify this arrangement for the foreseeable future by taking control of the ICC processes and stifling the diversity of views within world cricket. This in my mind, is how we should view the current players representative debacle, and George Orwell perhaps states it best in his timeless classic, Animal Farm, where he wrote:

“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where would we be ?”

But not only do the BCCI and their business people seek to control important sections of the ICC and the game’s governance, they also seek to control legitimate media comment upon such issues. One case in point is the BCCI establishing its own broadcaster BCCI TV, where formerly respected titans of the game such as Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri, and noted journalists such as Harsha Bhogle now sit cowed and obedient in their obsequious desire to satisfy their employer. And, it’s not just them but also overseas greats such as Shane Warne, Allan Border and Tom Moody who also seem strangely silent on matters not in the interests or consistent with the view of their employers.

They may have a misguided belief that the current state of affairs is merely an inversion of previous colonialism, but the slow and insidious crushing of debate, and their resolute silence or defence of the new regime is more consistent with totalitarian regimes than democracies, and does the game and its perpetrators little service and makes us all much the poorer. Chillingly, Orwell again says it best in Animal Farm:

” … they had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere, and when you had to watch your comrades torn to pieces after confessing to shocking crimes.”

In the book the revolution of the pigs becomes corrupted by the hubris and greed of Napoleon, who abandons its high principles and practices along the way to becoming his own lord of the manor. It bears close parallel with happenings in world cricket over the past few years, at the heart of which is the determination of a small group of business people to dominate the game solely for their commercial purposes rather than its general betterment.

As Orwell so aptly puts it “liberty is worth more than just ribbons”.  The traditions of the game, and the transparency of its governance and quest for improvement, call upon all fans and commentators to cast a penetrating light upon such travesties and prevent the ICC and the game becoming like the Animal Farm.

Until next time … that is stumps.