Thursday, November 23, 2006

It’s all about the game silly!

Last week I was visiting Mumbai and dropped in to see my friend, who is much younger than me but who is probably more passionate about cricket than I am. Not surprising since he lives so close to Shivaji park the cradle of Indian cricket. And yet both cricket lovers were taught a new lesson about how the great game that caught us young is not having the same success with today’s urban kids (at least on a sample size of one!) My friend’s young seven year old hogged the TV set watching an obscure football match for the 90 minutes I was there. Tottenham Spurs vs Reading was the game he was subjecting us to. Neither of these teams are Manchester United (which is one of the few teams that I know) but our young friend didn’t care or mind. But I certainly minded as I was not keen on watching football but didn’t have a choice but was more upset because I found that cricket was not running in the kid’s blood. And my friend also mentioned with more than a trace of regret in his voice that the little boy did not watch or play cricket, adore MS Dhoni or even talk about cricket. I remember Rahul Dravid speaking at a TV interview where he said that he expected more Indian cricketers to come from the smaller towns a la Dhoni. Has cricket viewing also shifting to the smaller towns? This is my first worry about cricket viewing today. How good are the television rating points as an indicator of changing trends? Are we still guided by our own predilections for cricket in backing the game and putting our marketing rupees behind it? Are we suffering from generational myopia and believing wrongly that our kids will behave the way we did 40 years ago. I believe marketers need to do serious research on who exactly is watching cricket. Recently Justin Langer discovered an unpleasant truth. When he asked some people in Australia what their favourite series were they said India 2004 and the Ashes 2005. Both series lost by Australia! So tired was the Asussie fan of one sided games. Do we really know our viewer?

In India cricket is not a religion
Ever since I was a kid I have heard this statement that you too must have heard ad nauseam, “Cricket is a religion in India”. “You can’t go wrong with cricket”. “India is a diverse country divided by languages, religion and customs and cricket is one of the common or unifying factors”. I would still go with the appeal part of it. But religion? Let me clarify. The last few months have seen Indian cricket go through the horrors. After a flattering home series triumph against Sri Lanka, India (as they have been known to do) lost their way losing badly in the West Indies. “Our track record overseas usually has not been anything to write home about” is how we consoled ourselves. “Things will look up in the champions trophy” we told each other. After all this was India and we were playing at home. Well it was India but the conditions were not Indian. The pitches were not our usual batting belters. The ball alternately kept low, bounced or seamed. Even as the ICC flew down someone to glue the pitches the Indian team came apart at the seams. We lost to our recent nemesis West Indies and our age old bugbear Australia. When did we last beat Australia? Who knows, who cares? And one consolation to the Indian cricket fan was that we were not alone in not making to the semis as Pakistan and Sri Lanka did not make it too. But there was little to cheer for the advertisers, the sponsors and the television channel Set max. The grounds were by and large empty and people were not even watching the two innings (some of which lasted all of 30 overs) let alone “extra innings”. And it is this that leads me to question the religious beliefs of the Indian cricket fan. The Indian cricket fan (at least the TV audiences that are boasted of) is very selective in his religious preferences. It is not cricket that matters to him as much as Indian cricket. He leaves the ground when Sachin gets out and switches channels when Dhoni gets out. My submission is that he is so conditioned to his favourite breaking records that he is not all that focused on team records or their success rate. One wonders whether he takes the cue from some of our record breaking cricketers. Hence my reservation to place my viewing bets on this fickle watcher. Our cricket fan reminds me of a bhakta who continues to worship his God only till his boons are granted! Some religion! So marketers who are betting on cricket are advised to hedge their bets.

Mandira or the tiger?
The “lady or the tiger” is an interesting marketing conundrum that has floored several brands. In their quest for new customers, marketers forsake their existing customers. Set max started this in the World Cup saying that they would expand audiences for cricket – bring in new viewers by marrying cricket and entertainment. I have one basic issue with this strategy. Test cricket in India was watched by die hards like me. We spent nights outside the Chepauk stadium waiting for the gates to open. Then India won the World Cup in 1983 and the world series of cricket in Australia. What happened? Even housewives started watching cricket and worried when the asking rate in the final overs was more than six. And they continue to watch when India does well. All of us watched the 2003 world cup because India played well because Sachin was almost the victor. Not because of Mandira Bedi though I must confess that I listened to unconfirmed rumours that suggested that as India kept winning, Mandira’s dress was becoming shorter. Sadly India did not win the world cup. It hasn’t since 1983. And I am not sure Set max is winning the ratings war with all the film stars who keep mouthing inanities about cricket. Where is the research that supports this strategy? I am sure Sidhu has outlived his usefulness and as for Mandira I feel sorry for her. After all it is no fun being the champion of team India that refuses to be a champion and her fortitude as she keeps smiling as wicket after wicket keeps falling. I think it is important to remember one thing. The entertainment has to happen at the centre not in the studio. The days of radio commentary meant commentators talked for 6 hours and we listened. We imagined Lillie’s bowling action and Botham’s batting. Today we have stump vision and action replays and we can see what’s happening. We don’t need analysis till we are paralysed. And what greater entertainment can Mandira and co provide that is greater than what Gayle, Sehawag or Gilchrist provide. It is only about cricket and if that doesn’t entertain then there is nothing that any television channel can do whatever its strategy. And all these attempts to build viewership are actually putting off cricket fans and making them switch. And new viewers? Yes they are in Australia getting irritated with Sidhu and clogging the blogs with their vitriolic comments. Yes there is a lot riding on cricket in this country and the game is in the news thanks to Darrel Hair, Shoaib Akthar, Sharad Pawar and Trescothick. Where is your brand in all this? Is it benefiting? Or getting battered like the Indian cricket team.

Cricket’s role in the sun
Cricket will always be important. And the game is not just in between commercials as our marketers would like to believe but the main reason why we watch. Commercials that eat into the first ball and the last ball are hated by viewers. Brands like MRF, LG or Pepsi may have to stay with cricket. They may even do commercials for Saurav Ganguly! As the wag said in his hey days Saurav Ganguly did commercials for Pepsi, today for old times’ sake Pepsi is doing commercials for Saurav. But do you and I have this luxury? When did you do research about how seriously people are watching cricket? Are peoples’ perceptions the same as yours? Are we losing out young audiences? Are they watching the Harlem Globetrotters? Maybe the Ashes will be interesting. Maybe England and Australia well recreate history. It will definitely be cheaper than sponsoring Indian matches. Maybe India will do brilliantly in South Africa. Maybe one billion people will rediscover the religion! And maybe all advertisers, channels and sponsors will be laughing all the way to the bank. And maybe my friend’s seven year old son will actually start watching cricket!

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