In 1977, an Australian gentleman by the name of Kerry Packer changed the sport of cricket forever. He started the World Series Cricket (WSC) tournament which took cricket from a sport of the ‘cultured elite’ to a sport that appealed to the masses. One day matches, shorter boundaries, colored jerseys. Everything was done to attract more consumers to the sport. Packer was also the owner of Channel 9, an Australian sports channel which before WSC wasn’t exactly setting the TRP’s on fire. After Packer brought this shorter version of cricket to Australian television sets, Channel 9 became the number-one free-to-air network in Australia. Fast forward to 2017 and Channel 9 held exclusive broadcasting rights to all of Australia’s cricket matches for 40 straight years, before losing out to a $1.8 billion contract to Foxtel and Channel 7. In an interview before his death in 2005, Packer nonchalantly stated that he didn’t revolutionize cricket for the love of the game, but only for his channel to top charts as the number one sporting channel. Channel 9’s broadcasting deal in 1977 marked the birth of cricket as the spectator sport that we are exposed to today.
Today, the Indian market is the biggest consumer of cricket and it has been so for the better part of this century. The broadcasting rights, which are currently held by Star group include rights to attraction like the IPL, and the World Cups. In an auction held in April 2018, Star managed to acquire the broadcasting rights for national team’s home series as well as domestic cricket for a massive Rs 6138.1 crore ($944 million approx). Star also has media rights over the Indian Premier League after paying Rs 16,347 crore ($2.55 billion) in an auction last year. According to acting BCCI secretary, Amit Chaudhary, the 6138 crore bid roughly translates to 60.18 crores, over 102 matches. Star is essentially the reason why cricket-crazy Indians are able to sit back on a Sunday afternoon and watch the likes of Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan tear bowling attacks apart on their 42-inch television screens. Without a broadcaster signing agreements with cricket boards, there would be no live telecast of cricket games.
Recently, Star has started interfering with matters in Indian cricket that were considered holy and untouchable by money, that of squad selection. In the recently concluded Asia cup which was held in Sharjah, the selection committee of the Indian cricket team decided to give Virat Kohli, captain of the Indian cricket team, a break from international cricket after a long summer in England. The Asia Cup, of late, has been a major attraction for the Indian cricket fans as it is the only time India locks horns with its ‘friendly’ neighbours Pakistan, outside of a world tournament. This decision of resting Kohli for the Asia cup did not sit well with Star, the host broadcaster of the Asia Cup. According to Sunil Manoharan, a senior executive at Star, the existing contract clearly states that The BCCI would pick the best available team for the Asia Cup.
In a letter addressed to the BCCI, Manoharan writes that “Virat Kohli has been the most prolific run scorer in world cricket in the recent past. His presence in the Indian team and his aggressive captaincy has a dramatic impact on the outcome of each event. In our view, this announcement about the absence of one of the world’s best batsmen from this edition of the Asia Cup, only 15 days before the commencement of the Asia Cup, is a serious dent to us (the event broadcaster) and will severely impact our ability to monetize and generate revenues from the tournament.” It is important to highlight that Star has a virtual monopoly over the broadcasting of Indian cricket for the next five years.
Now how does Kohli not being there impact revenue for Star? Does Star have any right to complain about his absence? Well, the sources of revenue for broadcasters can be divided into three main streams- a) selling television advertisement rights, b) digital distribution to cable and DTH operators, and c) digital advertisements and subscriptions on Hotstar. All three of these are positively influenced by the presence of ‘charismatic players.’ Kohli, the poster boy of Indian cricket and a major crowd-puller due to his antics on the field is someone you can term as a ‘charismatic player.’ These are players who involve the crowd with the sport, they give exciting press conferences, engage with fans on social media and add a vibrant flamboyancy to whatever they do on the field.
In the past, this was quantified by the rise of cricket viewership in England as well with the presence of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff. Both were ‘characters’ off the field, participated in controversial press conferences and engaged in sledging on the pitch. Thus, in the present context, one could argue that it’s not the best technical players, but the most commercially viable who are desired by the broadcasters and owners. In the case of Virat Kohli, he is both, he leads by setting the example and gets the crowd going.
In terms of player contracts, Virat Kohli is one of the five Indian cricketers under a grade ‘A+’ contract. These graded contracts by the BCCI are given to players depending upon their importance to the team. The players under the grade ‘A+’ contracts earn the most money per match, and also are the biggest attractions of the Indian team. Most of them, are the aforementioned ‘charismatic players’. A better strategy for the future might be a contract between the BCCI and the broadcaster that works on the basis of the presence of ‘A+’ contract players in the playing squad for a tournament. For every grade ‘A+’ player that is left out of the squad, when they could have been chosen, would result in the BCCI paying a small monetary compensation to the broadcaster. This, of course, would not hold if the player concerned is injured, meaning they were not available for selection. For example, in the Asia cup, the original broadcasting agreement of 60 crore per match would hold, but the absence of Kohli when he was available for selection would result in The BCCI paying around 5 crore rupees to Star, which would be a fair estimate of the viewership Kohli’s presence would bring to the national team. On the other hand, one might argue whether anything trumps the agency of the sportsman in deciding whether they want to play or not. This is highly complicated in competitive sporting environments like Indian cricket because an elongated period of staying away from the game could end up in the sportsperson getting easily replaced by someone younger, faster, and fitter.
One must also consider that constant strain in such a tight cricket schedule could result in the important cricketers getting injured for bigger tournaments like the upcoming world cup in 2019. In this scenario, the ideal middle ground for the broadcasters and the BCCI would be to prepare a detailed cricketing schedule for every year, and mentioning beforehand which tours and tournaments the ‘List A’ cricketers would be rested for in case of no injuries. The bids made for the media rights can thus be made keeping this predetermined player-match schedule in mind. This would allow crickets to take ideal rest periods, the BCCI to not pay any compensations and not be answerable to broadcasting agencies over selections and the broadcasters could adjust their final bids based on this pre-determined schedule. The downside of this “player-schedule” would be that if it was to be leaked, it would help opponents of the Indian cricket team to prepare for certain players in advance. Thus, a confidentiality agreement between Star and the BCCI would be the foundation of that deal.
One cannot take away the fact that broadcasters are one of the biggest stakeholders in the game of cricket today. It is because of them that the game of cricket has reached the heights it has in today’s date. One can also not take away the supreme right of any athlete to determine when they want to play, and when they need to rest. Nobody owns the body of an athlete apart from their own selves, however, it is possible to own the marketing and presentation of the athlete to the viewers of the sport. Thus, it is of prime importance for Star and BCCI to find out the middle ground between the individual autonomy of the player and their ability to rake in viewership money.