Valued at US$5 billion in India alone, cricket attracts corporates and the corrupt in equal measure…
When the English cricket team lifted the World Cup trophy last month at the Lord’s Stadium, it wasn’t just the fans of the winning team who were cheering. With cricket currently the second-most-popular spectator sport in the world – and with more than 100 nations now paid-up members of the International Cricket Council (ICC) – every party concerned, whether sponsors, advertisers, regulators or players, was chortling all the way to the ATM.
The corporate cash cow that cricket has become is, however, very different from the sport that was first played in England in the 16th century, a time when parish teams competed with one another, co-opting farm tools as make-do bats, tree stumps as wickets and anything vaguely spherical as a ball. From this seed, over the course of 500 years, cricket has bloomed into an international phenomenon, but it is its popularity in South Asia – mainly India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – that has truly transformed it into a booming multibillion-dollar business.
Its success, of course, is driven by the almost-fanatical level of support it occasions. According to the ICC, some one billion people follow the game with a feverish intent. In addition, as there are only around a dozen nations that play the game at the highest level, this means the stratospheric sums involved are actually divvied up between a very small number of stakeholders.
Indeed, at the end of the day, just 4Cs control the world of cricket – the Cup, the Cricketers themselves, the Country Leagues and the Corrupt. Having an in with just one of them would be more than enough to make you very rich indeed…
The World Cup – especially the men’s edition – is the biggest event on the cricketing calendar. Taking place every four years, billions of dollars are generated through sponsorships, TV rights, advertising and related merchandising. This year, the tournament’s global broadcast partner, Star Sports, made more than US$140 million from its coverage. The ICC also signed up 20+ brands as official partners, with each one swelling the coffers considerably. Even allowing for the fact that US$10 million had to be given away as prize money, there was still an awful lot left to be divvied up between the fortunate few involved. Ostensibly as a way of promoting the game, but also, no doubt, with an eye on the piggy bank, the ICC has launched a raft of additional tournaments over the years, including the ICC Champions Trophy and the ICC Super Series. About 10 years ago, it also gave the go-ahead to the T20 – 20-over games whose comparative brevity have made them more spectator-friendly than the more traditional test matches and 50-over games. A huge success, the T20 format has now been imported into dedicated – and hugely profitable – leagues by many of the world’s leading cricketing nations.
Those most obviously well-placed to capitalise on cricket’s success are, of course, its professional practitioners. However, as the cash rewards have increased, so too have the levels of disparity. While the world’s foremost cricketers can earn up to US$1 million from turning out for their national side alone, it’s a sum that varies considerably depending on where your home country ranks in the sport’s hierarchy. So, while Steve Smith, the captain of the Australian team earned US$1.47 million in 2018, Graeme Cremer, his Zimbabwean counterpart, slouched home with just US$86,000 for his trouble. Such match fees, though, come on top of the huge sums high-profile cricketers can command from sponsors. Sachin Tendulkar, one of the game’s most successful-ever batsmen, for instance, is worth US$118 million, with much of that accruing from endorsement deals. Similarly, Virat Kohli, the current captain of the Indian team, has stashed away US$144 million, with sponsors having again stumped up the lion’s share. Such bounty, however, seems to be distributed on a boys-only basis. Not only are lady-cricketers less famous, their pay cheques tend to have rather fewer zeros at the end. Here, at least, some things might be about to change, with the English women’s cricket team having been awarded a 40% bonus after their impressive World Cup performance.
The Country Leagues
Recognising the huge potential of the T20 format, domestic leagues focusing solely on this abbreviated version of the game have sprung up over the years. This has seen all-star T20 clubs – owned by high net-worth individuals or major corporate concerns – face off against each other in a number of high-profile tournaments, notably the Indian Premier League (IPL), the Australia Big Bash League, the England NatWest T20 Blast League and the South Africa Ram Slam T20 League. As an indication of the mega-profits to be made from such tournaments, Star India, a 21st Century Fox-owned TV network bought the worldwide broadcasting and digital rights to the IPL for a five-year period for US$2.55 billion back in 2017, fending off rival bids from 23 other organisations – including Facebook – in the process. As the IPL season is quite short, with only 60 matches played per year, this means that the US$8.5m broadcasting cost per game is four times more than that of North American National Basketball Association matches.
While once renowned as the game of gentlemen, cricket has become synonymous with corruption over the years. Despite the ICC’s avowed commitment to root out any and all instances of malpractice, incidences of spot-fixing and match-rigging remain all too common. This was thrown into sharp relief back in 2000 when it transpired that the then-South African captain, Hansie Cronje, had accepted payments to throw a test match against England. Barely had the aftershocks subsided across the cricket world when, 11 years later, three Pakistani players were found guilty of match tampering. Although all three of them were subsequently banned from the game for life and also served lengthy prison sentences, cricket’s reputation took a knock it has yet to recover from. Indeed, fair play seemed off the agenda yet again at the recently-concluded World Cup, with allegations that the all-powerful Indian cricket board had railroaded the ICC into allowing fewer teams to play in the tournament. This then allowed the Indian team to play a greater number of matches, leading to higher viewership in India and a massive advertising / sponsorship windfall. While, in the short term, such tactics may keep the cash rolling in, such transparent avarice may ultimately see the sport’s popularity crumble. After all, it’s just not cricket, now, is it?
Text: Suchetana Mukhopadhyay