Opinion | Falling attendance warning signal for cricket
Just as the Indian economy faces challenges, cricket’s ecosystem too has issues that threaten a slowdown. Some think the glitches are temporary and expect cricket to ride out the turbulence. Others warn of structural fractures and a longer crisis that requires course correction.
A key troubling area is falling attendance at matches and declining interest. India’s tour of the West Indies was a big yawn because cricket was low quality and uninteresting. So poor that matches resembled a glorified net played to empty stands. In comparison, the Ashes was riveting, cracking excitement, just what Test cricket needs. India-West Indies was exactly what cricket does not need.
The South Africa T20 games are best described in film trade language as lacking box office draw. Dharamsala was rained off but how can fans support a team that is without top stars and contains many unknowns?
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The message is clear: The market can’t be taken for granted, it can absorb only this much supply and no more, a bitter lesson the real estate and housing industry learnt recently.
Those smug about cricket’s continued sway must recognise that the World Cup in England, despite noise about crazy prices, saw tickets being traded last minute at every venue. In some places there was distress sale with fans offloading tickets at less than face value—even for India games.
Far more serious is the return of corruption, instances of falling integrity and the collapse of professional Twenty20 leagues that popped up like wild weed in the monsoon. India is seriously impacted with reports of state leagues TNPL and KPL infected or compromised, approaches to players, BCCI registering FIRs, officials questioned and interrogated, owners under the scanner. The situation in unregulated private leagues operating outside the system is much more scary.
The league bubble had to burst because they are unviable financially and the numbers just don’t add up. Losses are guaranteed and the balance sheet can only be coloured red. Beyond a point it isn’t possible for owners to write cheques and the field is open for malpractices and succumbing to temptation.
And as BCCI’s Anti-Corruption Unit bandwidth and powers are limited, they can only sound alarms, not stamp out the menace.
The greatest danger comes not from players but owners, who face mounting financial losses. That owners should have integrity and sound financial health is non-negotiable. That is why due diligence and background checks are a necessary precaution.
Foreign leagues are also undergoing massive churn. Sri Lanka shut shop after an aborted attempt. Afghanistan and other Dubai-based ventures are under a desert cloud. Bangladesh is not working; after experiencing problems of every kind its shutters are down.
In Canada, players went on strike because organisers defaulted/reneged on payments. The Euro league was cancelled at the last minute.
South Africa’s ambitious attempt to launch a global event sank as no sponsor or broadcaster would touch it. In Pakistan, team owners are demanding a revision in payment terms and looking for a bailout.
Cricket administrators have realised IPL’s wonderful model can’t be cut and pasted. Leagues have to be aligned to the economic reality of the country. It’s one thing to be inspired by India’s magic formula, quite another to think a photocopy job will make things happen. Also, while it is fine to move forward, getting too far ahead has its own challenges because fans/sponsors/ broadcasters/players can’t be taken for a ride.
Fortunately, cricket has hit the auto-correct button. Administrators are taking control, opting to directly own and manage teams instead of allowing private owners and outsourcing team operations. Australia’s Big Bash runs on this model, England’s Hundred is constructed on similar lines and now Bangladesh is adopting this structure.
The leagues serve a purpose; they benefit players and generate cash that sustains Test cricket. But If the bloodstream is infected, there is big trouble.
(The writer is a veteran sports administrator. Views are personal)