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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