Thursday, June 8, 2006

Cricket. A game of chance?

“Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs gets slaughtered” is the interesting title of a book by Anthony M. Gallea. And anyone who had the wisdom (?) to enter the Indian stock market on May 10, 2006 when the sensex was a mere 12,624 would bear testimony albeit reluctantly to the correctness of the title! (At the time of writing the sensex has gone down a mere 300 points in 60 minutes and is at 10276!) Indian cricket seems to display similar tendencies and is turning out to be a bit of a lottery for sponsors, advertisers, viewers and fans as well. With the World Cup in March / April 2007 less than a year away it is not only the Indian cricket team but advertisers who are contemplating cricket who need to get their thinking right lest they get slaughtered like some of our poor, unsuspecting retail investors.

Can you pick the spin?
The English media is going gaga over Kevin Pietersen and has been quick to brand him the next Vivian Richards. And one of the reasons why there is so much media hype is based on Pietersen’s ability to pick Murali’s spin and spot his “doorsra”. And yet I am amazed at the PR spin around Indian cricketers and the game itself. I was recently foxed at seeing a TV programme in a fairly popular television channel focused on Dhoni’s home town of Ranchi and the celebrity‘s status in that town. If the report was to be believed people were swearing by their local hero and saying what a great credit he was to their town and state and how they would only buy products endorsed by Dhoni! Of course a few days later the news was full of how Gujarat was boycotting products like Titan, Coke and Innova that Aamir Khan was endorsing! Both these seem to be contradictory to whatever one has known or read about celebrities. Someone’s PR machinery is clouding the issue and I think it is important for advertisers not to be carried away by “PR Spin” and media hype and stick to facts about cricket and its efficacy as an interest or advertising opportunity.

Most viewers sleep at night

When Kerry Packer launched his revolutionary brand of Pajama cricket under lights, cricketers like Imran Khan sported T Shirts with the slogan “Big boys play at night”. And yet during the recently concluded India West Indies matches (which were absolutely absorbing) barring a few night owls like me most of India was sleeping. Let me explain. How many of you saw Kaif’s winning hit of Bravo with just a ball to spare at Jamaica live? Which of you saw Yuvaraj’s shattered expression as he was bowled by Bravo at Jamaica live or Sarwan’s winning hit of Sreesanth at St. Kitts. Absolutely enthralling matches played out to miniscule television audiences at 3.45 a.m, Indian Standard Time. And I think this is relevant when we consider that next year’s big ticket event will be the Cricket World Cup. And most of the matches will be played around this time of day (or is it night) barring a few that may be played under lights which could still preclude viewership of the first innings. Yes, cricket is in the news, cricket celebrities make headlines (sometimes like Shane Warne) but if your money is riding on the game and its viewership itself, just step back for a moment.

Ride the excitement

India and Pakistan way back in 1987 were hosting the Reliance World Cup. We were working for a brand of blades called Wilman (the brand has since been taken over by Gillette). It was not a large advertiser and did not have the resources to take spots on the telecast of the matches. They wisely decided to ride the cricket wave without getting caught in the clutter. They created a lot of excitement around the stadium where the crowds were there – held promos, trials and displays. After all every one cannot be a Reliance. And this is the point I want to make. There are many brands with long term interests, commitment and loyalty to the game and its stars. Brands like MRF, LG and Pepsi readily come to mind. These are huge brands, leaders in the markets they operate in with large budgets. Several Indian and international cricketers endorse these brands. Brands like these will continue to back cricket in India or abroad, day or night, whether India wins the world cup or gets knocked out in the preliminaries. But what about the majority of brands who are in various stages of search, wooing or flirting? The answer is obvious. Cricket is vast getting followers of all sizes, shapes and nationalities. But can you fine tune your strategy even if you are staying with cricket? World Cup cricket or football obviously makes sense for companies selling TV sets. (And one wonders how much Pepsi will be drunk in the middle of the night?) But what about shampoos, soaps, invertors, paints, cements, which will feature in the world cup telecast next year? To my mind the obvious, lazy strategy will not work. Even if you want to stay with cricket can you look elsewhere or at the fringes?

The game spreads

The ICC is keen to expand the game and its popularity beyond the traditional centres. Whether that has worked or not, what has certainly happened is that people are watching cricket from other parts of the world. The viewership for the last Ashes series played in England or for that unbelievable one day match between Australia and South Africa played at the Wanderers was phenomenal in India. And the costs? Probably much lower. The Ashes will precede the world cup and the champions trophy will be in India as well. Try not to get caught in the hype. Cricket is here to stay. It is not like real estate as some smart salesman would like us to believe. Keep a budgetary provision for opportunities that may turn up lest you end up like the retail investor who invested on 10th May 2006!

The author is Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of brand-comm.