Thursday, January 18, 2007

A hit-and-giggle or a laugh all the way to the bank?

2 p.m. on Tuesday 9th January 2007 is not prime time viewing in India. It was certainly prime time viewing in Sydney (where England and Australia were playing a twenty-twenty international match) and in the rest of Australia as well. It was not prime time viewing in England, 8.30 a.m. on a working day and England was getting thrashed to boot. But not withstanding the time, I sensed that I was seeing something extraordinary. The hit-and-giggle or the blow and guffaw as twenty-twenty cricket has been described seemed an amazingly entertaining thing to me at least. Without knowing too much about forecasting (other than knowing that it is not easy) I am still dumb enough to predict that this form of cricket is going to be an amazing marketing opportunity for the future for those brands that are aligned to cricket and even some of those that are not. While realising the total absurdity of a few forecasts made in the past by people far more illustrious than me, “a world market of about 5 computers,” “rock groups are on the way out” (while rejecting the Beatles) or “that atom bomb will never go off” - I am still going to stick my neck out and say that lots of people want entertainment, they want to have a good time and not spend the whole day at a cricket match. And the answer has to be twenty-twenty cricket.

Roll out the entertainment carpet
Too often cricket is not very entertaining. Certainly not the longer version of the game, at least to younger viewers, who are not die-hard cricket fans. Those fans like me who watch 5 day cricket matches realise that we are a dwindling if not dying breed. Empty grounds are common in the sub continent for test matches, as in countries like South Africa. England and Australia are better placed. But in India test cricket is losing steam and consequently viewership. While one can argue till the cows come home about the value and worth of test cricket, I think it is time for us to keep aside our personal predilections and biases and focus on consumers. They will love the shorter version of the game or should I say the shortest version of the game. And at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Ian Healy the wicket keeper turned commentator was walking around the stadium microphone in hand. He asked a young 8 year old girl who was at the SCG whether she had come for the Ashes test which happened the previous week and she said “Naw, daddy was there”. Is there a lesson? And she was having the time of her life – dancing girls, fireworks, 2 sets of DJs, players having microphones and sharing their views and most importantly a barrage of sixes – 14 in the Australian innings. And while the English fielders dropped 2 catches on the field, the crowd dropped 14 in the stands! An alarming drop in the fielding standards of Aussie crowds are an indication of the fact that twenty-twenty is getting a completely new genre of viewers and spectators. I think India is eminently ready for this new breed of entertainment. We love sixes. We love hoicks. And something tells me we will do well in this format.

Pajama cricket
The legendary Kerry Packer was responsible for revolutionizing cricket – night cricket, coloured clothing, world teams and huge crowds doing Mexican waves. But he got fairly bad press and conservative, traditional cricket fans and critics lambasted him. I can see a similar wave of criticism following twenty-twenty cricket. “It is for those with attention deficiency disorder” says one sarcastically. And this is really where marketers need to be careful. Critics are dime a dozen. They have a point of view. They too have a reader following which is in actual fact far less than they think it is. And they really are clueless about trends and are better at spotting trains! They could easily mistake a trend for a fad. Why is this shortest version a trend? It very simply typifies the times we live in. We live in a time compressed era. The only thing that we can wait for 9 months today is a baby. In contrast to some of us who waited 15 years for a Bajaj scooter!. A whole 20-20 game will take all of 3 hours. Batsmen will have to run out to the crease within 90 seconds. If India did what they did in the last test match when Saurav Ganguly came in place of Tendulkar after 7 minutes we may have been penalized 5 wickets! Players have ear pieces. Batsmen talk to the viewers even as they get ready to face the bowler. You are there with the batsman or the captain in the heat of it. We had an amazing situation in this match that I spoke about earlier where Gilchrist had just clobbered James Anderson for 2 consecutive sixes and the commentators urged him to go for a third one and he did precisely that! If it had been a few years earlier we might have thought that something was fishy. In this case someone merely had to fish the ball from the Bill O’Reilly stand. Yes innovation is the name of the game even if the game in question is a 200 year old game like cricket.

New customers
Everyone wants newer, younger customers. Set Max too in India is trying to do this using Mandira Bedi and other entertainers from Bollywood reminiscing about their childhood tennis ball cricketing days. But is that entertainment? I wonder. India’s win in the 1983 world cup and the world series of cricket in Australia opened up the floodgates of TV viewing in this country as your mother-in-law and mine started watching one day cricket. Some people have been loyal to the game, some have not. Viewership has waxed and waned with our own team’s fortunes. Contrast this with the high Ashes viewership in the recent Ashes series and England’s poorer viewership at home. People want their team to win. Twenty-twenty may give cricket viewership in this country a big shot in the arm as it will get new viewers in. People in India will take to it as enthusiastically as we did with one day cricket. The BCCI’s reluctance to accept this initially demonstrates its inability to spot a trend even if the trend gives it a kick in the butt.

So where’s the action?
2007 is a big year for cricket. India has just returned from a mixed tour of South Africa. Every other team is playing cricket in some part of the world or the other. Eight one dayers with the West Indies and Sri Lanka precede the magnum opus - the World Cup. Companies must be spending a lot of time, effort and money planning to be in this event, which is fair, but I still have a reservation about the timing of the telecast for Indian fans if not about our current form. My suggestion to marketers is this. Ask for a copy of the tape of the 20-20 match played at Sydney. Watch it with your family. You will like me, feel the excitement. You might even think about putting your money in the 20-20 world cup in South Africa in September. After all India may not have lasted 50 overs in a one day match but they will certainly last 20! But seriously think 20-20 if you want a different, younger audience. Think 20-20 if you want family viewing. I somehow think it won’t be a game of chance for marketers!

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

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