Thursday, April 17, 2008

Is innovation the name of the game?

Where’s the beef?” asked Clara Peller, former manicurist turned TV celebrity in her campaign for Wendy’s, which was one of the most recalled advertising campaigns of all time so much so that it made it into the editorial, the langua ge of the street, jokes and even underwear. Closer home Minute Maid has launched a similar campaign with perhaps far less impact with the line “Where’s the pulp?” Inspired by these thoughts and all the developments in the world of cricket and the competition between ICL and IPL and the weakness that exists genetically in ICC led me to this important question “Where’s the innovation in cricket?”

It seems obvious to me that the BCCI has demonstrated tremendous innovativeness (borrowed as it is from other sports such as basketball and football) in the conceptualisation and marketing of the IPL to various cash-rich franchisees. But for IPL to hold its own and thrive, or for ICL to survive even, one or both of them need to come up with innovations that extend to the game, its audiences and viewers, not only to the advertisers and marketers whose importance cannot be ignored.
Space-seller’s delight
Cricket is not only the number one passion in this country but the one which has witnessed very creative selling. When I was in South Africa in 2003 to watch the World Cup, I was talking to one of the TV technicians covering the event and he said, “You Indians are amazing! Imagine having sponsors for the weather report and the toss!” Yes, those certainly and many more, like the fours and the sixes package and the hunk of the day show, multi-tasking suggestions, SMS contests like naming your favourite player … clearly the demand for advertising time so far has been much more than the supply and the marketers have excelled themselves in innovation.
Of course, there is a quick downside to this. The current test series between South Africa and India has been a revelation in the sense that one actually got to see the batsmen talking to each other in the middle between overs. What? No commercials! You must be joking! Yet, the ICC, greedy as it is, aided and abetted by other boards, is running the risk of killing the real McCoy, which is test cricket. The West Indies has finished playing Sri Lanka at home and New Zealand have just finished a home series against England while the ICL matches were on every day, not to forget the Deodhar trophy and the Challenger series even if we are allowed to forget the Pura Cup, the finals of which were shown here too in India. Was anyone watching? This will be the ultimate challenge and soon there will be less and less test and one-day cricket and more of 20:20 cricket.
The innovation of television
Television coverage of test cricket started (hold your breath) in 1938 when England played Australia at Lord’s. But it has come quite far since then, though one must remember that till 1989 coverage was only from one side of the wicket, the logic being that when you watched a match live, you watched it from the same seat in the stadium.

Innovations have multiplied since the days of Kerry Packer and Channel 9 has led the way. StumpVision’s value was demonstrated by Shane Warne’s ball of the century. Throw in the snickometer, stump microphones (even if they throw up bilge on reproduction), slow motion replays to fractions of frames … all these and more have made it an absolute delight to watch cricket even if in India one’s viewing of the cricket has usually been interrupted by avaricious television channels. I am sure we will continue to watch even more technological innovations, all of which will make us better umpires than Simon Tauffel, the world’s best umpire, even if we give our decision seven replays later!
Necessity the mother of innovation
When Kerry Packer threatened to divide the cricketing world in two he came up with some outstanding innovations not only in the marketing of the game but in its running. Coloured clothing still rules the roost, though teams such as ICL’s Chennai Superstars hurt your eyes with the colour of their uniforms. Today most of the cricket is played under lights especially the shorter version of the game. Replays on the big screen that had the audience sweating…all these and more have been there for ages. The wonders that we experienced twenty years ago when we first watched World Series cricket are there, perhaps not too much new has been added. The ICL is doing many things that have been done before even if getting item number starlets to perform in between innings might be termed as an innovation by them, even if it seems pretty boring stuff to me, more so since my wife always seems to be around when that particular item comes on!
Where’s the innovation?
Let’s take two of the most hyped cricketing formats that are currently on view for us in India - ICL and IPL.
ICL already has eight teams and IPL will have a further eight. Let us look at some of the names as the name is perhaps the most visible part of a brand, even a sports brand. If you ignore the prefixes of the places, which are inevitable, you will find lions, superstars, heroes, champs, rockets, kings, challengers, chargers and royals. All the franchisees want to build brands around their respective franchisees but they seemed to have missed the first chance to be different or innovative.

All the franchisees have announced their teams with tremendous fanfare though some clearly have been lukewarm both in the composition of the teams and the way they have gone about announcing them to the media. Of the lot, I must mention that the King Khan’s launch of his team Knight Riders probably stole the thunder. We had him exposing his teams, his mascot the golden helmet, his commercials (ad infinitum on the channel as publicity) and even the team’s anthem.

While an anthem per se is an interesting idea, at the risk of sounding cynical, I must tell you that the Aussie chant “C’mon Aussie C’mon” is at least 20 years old as an idea. Having said that I am not even sure how ready the other teams are with their merchandise and promotions given the fact that the tournament starts on April 18.
The challenge of the future
Twenty-twenty is a phenomenal concept and our winning of the world 20:20 competition in South Africa will not be forgotten by us in a hurry. In fact, the ICL, which has much older players who retired some time ago like Ian Harvey and Stuart Law, to name just two, has had its fair share of exciting games and I just got a mailer from ICL saying that one particular game had a TVR of 2.6. When I used to live in Chennai, I used to find people stopping to watch a fourth division league match being played at the Madras Medical College grounds. So people will watch ICL, IPL, just about any L provided the cricketers perform.

Unfortunately, the BCCI and the franchisees have built too much hype around the generic interest of the 20:20 format. The recent ad for IPL saying it is more than a dharmayudh, it is a karmayudh. Wow! Adam Gilchrist slogging it out with Shane Warne promises to be certainly a war of karma! Speak about “mere puffery” that advertising specialises in! We do know that whenever any brand over promises and does not deliver on expectation it falls flat on its face. The IPL has to deliver on the consumer experience both in the stadium and in front of the TV screens. Getting skimpily dressed foreign models as cheerleaders is hardly the most innovative thing that one can think of. When Australia played England in a 20:20 game last year at the SCG I think it was, the commentator spoke to Gilchrist even as he was belting sixes and when the commentator asked Michael Vaughan what his strategy was, he very candidly said that he was only thinking of getting out of the hard hit ball’s way! Those to my mind were innovations as they gave the viewer something he had not been getting earlier and they had nothing to do with another meaningless contest or another opportunity to sell space.

My advice to both the franchisees and the IPL is to look for ways to engage the spectator in his team, the game and cricket, not at the meaningless things that go by the way of entertainment. The real entertainment for cricket has to happen within 22 yards and the game has enough entertainers and characters to hold the attention of a billion people even.

Yet, why should I, living in Bangalore, support Jacques Kallis or my cousin in Hyderabad chant slogans for Andrew Symonds? That is the challenge of the modern game and I guess traditionalists like me are going to watch less of their favourite sport test cricket. But we have an open mind to change; we still watch one-day cricket and 20:20 cricket. But please do something different around the game of cricket that will engage, enthrall and make me loyal.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

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