Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cricket going “down under”?

The sport is proving to be too much of a good thing, and then not even that.

Friday the 13th. Contrary to what the date suggested, it turned out to be a brilliant, sunny day at Perth. For the Indian cricket team and the hapless Indian cricket fan, though, it could not have been gloomier. The much vaunted Indian test batting line-up that has scored an aggregate of over 50,000 test runs among them and who have put most attacks and bowlers to the sword, folded up for a mere 161 (yet again) after being put in to bat. That was not all. David Warner, who made his reputation in the Indian Premier League, bit the hand that fed him by doing a Virender Sehwag on us, as Shashi Tharoor cleverly tweeted. Around 2.30 p.m. on that fateful day, I called my long-time friend and co-cricket lover to commiserate with him. If anything he has been more cricket-mad than me, faithfully getting up at 4.30 a.m. for a 5 a.m. cricket match and sitting dutifully in front of the television, coffee mug in hand. But he shocked me, when I asked him the score. “I have switched off,” he said.

I nearly dropped my new iPhone. This was serious. If this was happening to people like him and me, what would happen to the average cricket fan who normally is a glutton for punishment? Well, the TRPs don't lie and the first two tests had ratings of 0.89 and 0.70 this time around compared to 1.07 and 1.30 in 2007-08. (We must remember, though, that test matches are on daytime, not great television viewing times generally). Not surprisingly, Channel Nine was smiling all the way to the bank as it had 1.49 million viewers watching the home team's triumph compared to the 1.14 million tuned in to see their team lose at the Ashes last year. So what is happening? You don't have to be Geoffrey Boycott to figure out that people will want their team to win and we don't look like we will win anything other than beach volley ball at this point in time, a belief reinforced by Gambhir's statement that we need “raging turners” at home to teach the rest of the world a lesson or two!

Marketers are worried

Suddenly, the smug expressions of all those riding the cricket juggernaut are being replaced by doubt and fear. Are they on the wrong train? Should they jump ship?

Having been married for 29 years and having heard the expression too often in the past you will forgive me for saying “I told you so”. I have maintained in this column and in other forums where I have been invited to speak that cricket has a high element of risk in it. The organisers of this game in this country and elsewhere too are firm believers in J.M. Keynes philosophy that “In the long run, we are all dead”, so are selling the family jewels and eating the low-hanging fruit (read T20) with scant regard for the future of the game itself. In any case, the BCCI does not seem to be unduly bothered about anything other than its own coffers, so marketers would be well advised to look after their own interests and keep a close watch on what their consumers (who, incidentally, they think, are watching cricket) are doing today as their team plunges to new lows abroad. Just as though to reinforce my views, the BCCI released the 53-day schedule for IPL 5 even as India crashed to defeat in the Sydney test.

Who is watching what?

Last Sunday I was playing golf. I too was running away from the cricket. How many times can a guy watch his team getting thrashed in three days? After all there is only so much punishment a guy can take. Back to my golf game and we got talking. After all, in between all that hacking that happens in the golf course and all those lumps of mother India that we collectively take out, we compare notes. On our children. What else?

After all, we are known as fathers of Anirudh or Akanksha or husbands of Rekha or Swati or other exotic women. But back to the children and their interests and my two partners who were also the fathers of two 16-year-olds who were great friends even though they belonged to different schools. The reason? Both of them were supporters of Arsenal, the football team. I think the reality is that today's city kids are following football teams and know more about them than the currently beleaguered Indian cricket team.

It is possible that 16-year-olds in the smaller towns are still watching cricket, but surely brands must be worried about the metros, aren't they? Upmarket metro kids living in Peddar Road, Boat Club Road or Lavelle Road are not watching cricket and that is the sobering truth. Maybe they are watching IPL but we will come to that soon. The older, diehard fans like us are not watching too much T20 cricket but that is happening every day in some part of the world.

So significant chunks of the audience are moving out of the game into fresher viewing pastures even as some marketers and channels live in denial. Niches are emerging – be it EPL, Formula One or Wimbledon tennis. A more selective strategy that straddles different interests and sports rather than an overwhelming reliance on cricket clearly seems to be the way to go.

Killing the golden goose

Cricket has delivered in India and how! We have had fantastic viewership patterns over the years and some of our triumphs, rare as they might have been, have thrilled the Indian audiences and boosted TRPs no end. The IPL too seems to offer a safer window as T20 by its very nature is less taxing on the viewer - the shorter duration, cheerleaders to cut the tedium, and shorter boundaries to increase the six-hitting capability of the modern batsman who already has a tremendous advantage by way of supercharged cricket bats and bowlers with hands tied behind their backs, thanks to pitches which are deader than enquiry commissions in India and laws which ensure that they get penalised if they bounce the ball and give batsmen another chance to score with “free hits”. A bowler today is probably like a modern-day husband with no rights or privileges as the system is completely loaded against him. The spectator does not mind too much about all this as he generally gets a fair share of sixes and fours. So watching a match live is like watching a highlights package on television.

Yet, how much of a good thing can we have? Even the gluttonous cricket fan has had his fill of mediocre fare. He wants a break with the calendar being as crowded as the Tirumala temple on Vaikunta Ekadasi day. Matches follow each other with meaningless regularity and how many one-day matches can we watch of India playing Sri Lanka? It is pertinent to recall what Rahul Dravid said in his Bradman memorial speech a few weeks ago. He said the sight of India playing one-day internationals to empty stadia at home is a chilling reality and perhaps indicative of the way things will pan out in case our scheduling continues to be as wonky as it has been in recent times.

So what is to be done?

Administrators in India definitely do not care for the ultimate consumer - the spectator and the television viewer. He will, like anyone receiving scant attention or poor service, quietly move away. And the administrator will not know what has hit him. But it is time for the marketer to act in her best interests.

“Caveat Emptor”- the principle of “buyer beware” is even more relevant in television spot buying than ever before.

Should marketers work on an incentive-based system of linking sponsorship rates to TRPs as happens in the case of television soaps?

Instead of merely talking, should the large marketers actively support another sport as part of their “de-risking” strategy?

Can marketers talk to sports channels to reduce their level of TV advertising, lots of which cuts into the actual watching of the match?

Like India Inc constantly talks to India and its politicians about things like liberalisation, can the large advertisers have a heart-to-heart with the administrators of the game and share their concerns? BCCI will listen if the advertisers threaten to pull the plug.

We live in challenging times and perhaps now is the time to step back and think. Time to ponder. Of a life with less cricket, less heartburn and more peace.

Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Rajendra said...

Cricket is dead for me, I am sorry to say. I can barely watch 5 minutes of any game these days, dunno why. I think the players' attitude has something to do with it. They don't seem to care- could be overwork, or lucrative IPL or whatever. I don't care what the cause is. Maybe I am too old!

shrini said...

For a follower of ur post, an entire article on cricket is one thing to look out for given ur interest in it and our desire to read much beyond what we see in the television. But ironically, this is one such article that not many would enjoy readin, but surely wud ponder as one reads... True that the indian cricket team has had a dismal performance in the past two outings... it Sachin's 100th ton playin in the team's mind itself or do ppl like Rahul and Laxman lookin for a season abroad to finish on a real high that they are takin too much pressure on themselves which leads to a all in one pressure on Mahi?
Sure that it was the same Ishant who chased Ponting out last season, but then he had a wonderful team oozin with confidence, now we need ppl like Rohit, Kohli, Raina and the likes of Ashwin (who does beyond bowlin), Umesh to be given much more exposure of abroad pitches. Its high time BCCI sends these youngsters to play in county cricket in the England/Aus/SA to get exposed to such pitches. Such exposures wil ensure a proper solid base for them to get into the Indian team and perform better!
If not them, at least ppl like Vijay, Mithun, Pujara and lot more promisin youngsters so that they understan abroad pitches better... and yea.. Goutham Gambhir's comment of a spin track is a must, but lets ensure we got proper spinners to threaten the opponents b4 havin one!