Sachin Tendulkar waves the checkered flag during the first ever Indian Grand Prix

Sachin Tendulkar waves the chequered flag at India's first ever GP, in October 2011

© Getty Images


A formula to save cricket?

Does the Test game need saving? Is it financially worthwhile? The answers could emerge from another sport

Andrew Miller  |  

In March 2010, a group of starry-eyed county cricket administrators gathered in Delhi for a fact-finding meeting with the then IPL commissioner, Lalit Modi. As representatives of England's major match venues, the purpose of their visit was to investigate ways in which they could coat-tail the most exponentially growing show in the sport.

For the delegates already knew then what is abundantly clear now: the ECB-approved policy of building ever-shinier stadiums in the hope of securing an Ashes Test here or an India T20 there required English cricket to write a series of cheques that the national team alone, already stretched to breaking point with some 300 days a year on the road, could never be expected to pay for.

The answer? Why not pack out those grounds with franchise-based "cricketainment", as Yorkshire's then chief executive Stewart Regan proselytised in a breathless memo to his cohorts back home. "They are absolutely convinced we are sitting on a gold mine!" he panted. "India see England as the PIVOTAL partner in a Northern Hemisphere / Southern Hemisphere deal… "

Regan's wide-eyed tone continued across two sides of A4, even when stating the bleeding obvious about a form of the game that, lest we forget, the ECB itself had pioneered as a marketing tool seven years earlier.

"The IPL model relies heavily on 'star players' and this is why they have been so successful," he wrote. "They have taken TV and sponsorship monies from the film and soap-opera categories and brought women into the game like never before. Matches include fashion shows, after-match parties (for which the rights have been sold centrally) and entertainment..."

Never mind the cricket, eh? And strangely enough, no one did. The crux of Modi's proposal, subsumed as ever by the headlines he generated, was that his supranational monolith would slurp up 80% of the tournament profits, leaving the 18 first-class counties to squabble over a share of barely 1% per club.

Regan's missive had been written more as a stream of consciousness than an actual gunpowder plot. However, long before its finer details could be debated, Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, was launching legal action against all concerned, declaring he had uncovered "a plan to destroy world cricket's structure and create a new rebel league".

Regan had sent out a warning, though. "If the governing bodies try to block the development of IPL20 then the franchisees could, if they wished, simply buy out the players and create their own cricket structure," he said. "… power has shifted to the franchisee and it is no longer the case that the ICC could stop this from happening. If they did it will happen anyway!"

Around the time of that Delhi meeting, in the district of Noida to the south-east of the city, a different type of shiny stadium was in the process of being erected. Much like his county cricket counterparts, Sameer Gaur, the managing director of Jaypee Greens, found himself channelling the spirit of Kevin Costner from Field of Dreams in conceiving the Buddh International Circuit, India's maiden Formula One venue.

"Ecclestone is the Michelin-starred chef of Formula One. He cooks the dishes, so he runs the kitchen, and by extension the restaurant too" Mihir Bose, journalist and author

"If you build it, they will come" might as well have been the Jaypee Group's unofficial motto. In 2001 they had been responsible for bringing a Greg Norman-designed golf course to Noida, with the return on that investment coming in the sale of 3000 accompanying apartments and villas. "We first create sports infrastructure," Gaur told Outlook Business. "Monetisation comes later. The real estate and sports combo can never be a losing proposition."

In the short term, it seemed he was not wrong. On October 30, 2011, India's most famous petrolhead, Sachin Tendulkar, waved the chequered flag as Sebastian Vettel's victory concluded an inaugural Grand Prix weekend like few others. The drivers raved about the track, a proper racing circuit designed by German mastermind Hermann Tilke, while the paddock was in awe of the tamasha, with superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta adding Bollywood glamour to the legendary after-parties.

Tendulkar wasn't the only major cricket personality to attend the event. In 2007, even before he owned Royal Challengers Bangalore, the United Breweries tycoon Vijay Mallya had bought a controlling stake in the Spyker F1 team to create Force India, whose orange, green and white colours were a tribute to the Indian flag. Four years later, Sahara, long-term sponsors of the Indian cricket team, came on board as co-owners. Mallya's presence in the sport, and the patriotic subtext of his team, provided all the more reason for Buddh's development to be fast-tracked.

In the end, little more than a coat of paint separated a logistical triumph from a national embarrassment, but none of this mattered to Formula One's myriad sponsors, whose wares had been gloriously paraded in front of India's vast middle class, one of the fastest growing and most aspirational societies on the planet.

"F1 will gradually match cricket's popularity in India," declared Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's impresario and arguably the most remarkable Svengali that the sports industry has known. "At the moment it is about as popular as cricket in France. But things will improve drastically in the years to come."

How soon is now? After three successful but politically fraught meets, the Indian Grand Prix was cancelled for the 2014 season and omitted from the calendar for 2015. With revenues flatlining and the price of cement going through the floor, the Jaypee Group has been flogging its assets to make ends meet. Yet such is the importance of the Grand Prix to the company's business model, it remains committed to honouring the remaining instalments of its five-year staging agreement, as signed with Ecclestone's Formula One Management for a reported $40m per race.

Star mileage: Bernie Ecclestone (far left) at one point harboured ambitions of his sport matching cricket's popularity in India some day

Star mileage: Bernie Ecclestone (far left) at one point harboured ambitions of his sport matching cricket's popularity in India some day © Getty Images

The reasons for the postponements are numerous but they boil down to a single prosaic fact: the Uttar Pradesh government, in a bureaucratically accurate summary of every criticism that has been hurled Formula One's way for 20 years, watched these billboards on wheels hurtling through a region where properly metalled roads are in short supply, and deemed the resulting spectacle to be an entertainment rather than a sport.

Thus, instead of subsidising the costs and reaping the economic benefits of global exposure, the Uttar Pradesh authorities placed tax and duties on every detail of the race, with visas for the teams proving hugely problematic. Denied the red-carpet treatment to which he was accustomed, Ecclestone responded with the sort of curt, emotionless pragmatism that only the sharpest businessmen possess. He packed his bags and said goodbye to the circuit.

"Formula One is both sport and entertainment," says Vicky Chandhok, a former president of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India. "It is perhaps one of the most hi-tech and riskiest sports in the world, where participants need to make decisions in micro-seconds which could either let them live or could kill them.

"But of course it is entertainment too. Any sport has to be entertaining as well. Unless you combine sport with entertainment, nothing will sell. Is the Indian Premier League a sport?"

Well, quite. Chandhok's pay-off is a moot point that epitomises the struggle for sport's soul in the 21st century. But ultimately, while Ecclestone still hopes to crack the Indian market for obvious commercial reasons, the contract he negotiated ensured that none of the woes facing the circuit were ever going to be his problem.

"Traditional governing bodies have a public-sector ethos. Formula One, and increasingly the IPL, has more in common with the private sector" Richard Gillis, sports business commentator

Just as English counties have to take it on the chin when a summer goes by without a Test match being allocated their way, so India's motorsport organisers know that the show will go on without them. There are plenty of circuits in the world funded by governments that are grateful to pay through the nose for the right to host a Grand Prix. Ecclestone's genius is that he has convinced the world that his product is indispensable.

"There's a big lobby within the sports industry saying that all governing bodies should be like F1," says Richard Gillis, a sports business commentator and author of the Unofficial Partner blog. "Traditional governing bodies such as the ECB and Football Association have a public-sector ethos; they exist to support grass roots, so that the money they generate can be reinvested for the greater good. Formula One, and increasingly the IPL, has more in common with the private sector. There's no need to spend money on anyone beyond themselves. The only benchmark by which they are judged is profit."

Every administrator in world sport wishes he had a product as malleable as Formula One - not least, it would appear, ICC chairman N Srinivasan. However, no one has worked as hard or as long as Ecclestone to create the putty he now holds in his hands. In his 44 years at the helm, he has developed for Formula One a plutocratic exoskeleton that conceals, and mitigates, a host of problems that would be a death knell for less lucrative pursuits.

In fact, the flaws of Formula One strike some uncanny parallels with the current state of Test cricket. The 2015 F1 season began in Melbourne on March 15 with fewer teams on the grid than there are Test nations. Of those, only the dominant Mercedes team went into the race with any real expectation of victory, while at the back of the pack were the former giants McLaren Honda, whose utter dominance in the 1980s counted for nothing as they limped through qualifying a full five seconds off the race pace.

If you build it, they will come (before the tax authorities put a spoke in the wheel): the Buddh International Circuit as it came into being outside New Delhi

If you build it, they will come (before the tax authorities put a spoke in the wheel): the Buddh International Circuit as it came into being outside New Delhi © Getty Images

At least McLaren made it to the race, unlike the sickest teams in the business - Caterham, who had resorted to crowdfunding to make the grid for the 2014 season finale in Abu Dhabi but whose assets have since been put up for auction, and Manor (formerly Marussia), who never made it out of their garage at Melbourne after suffering technical issues during qualifying. It is teams such as these whose finances - or lack thereof - generate more headlines than their on-track exploits.

"There is enough money for everyone to make money from F1," said Tony Fernandes, Caterham's owner. "In F1 you know the team at the back ain't going to win unless it's really freakish. Formula One needs a bit more excitement, needs a bit of cost control and needs to make sure that teams have enough money to survive."

"Caterham had as much chance of winning a Grand Prix as Bangladesh does a Test match," says BBC commentator Jonathan Legard, who points out that in seven seasons since 2008 even the middle-of-the-grid teams - Torro Rosso, Williams and Lotus - have been restricted to a solitary win apiece. "Sport relies on unpredictability, but in Formula One, as in Test cricket, much of the romance has been lost."

Traditionalists in both sports hanker for the good old days and few of Formula One's true fans thank Ecclestone for his four decades of stewardship. However, with commercial revenues of $1.6 billion for 2013 alone, gratitude is not, and never will be, Ecclestone's main consideration.

In 1971, when he first entered the sport by buying Brabham, the competing teams all negotiated individually with the 11 host circuits and on a race-by-race basis (bilateral arrangements, how passé... ). That status quo had favoured the aristocratic outfits such as Ferrari, but Ecclestone suggested to his British-based rivals (derided as "garagistes" by the Italians) that they pool their resources to extract better deals. Almost overnight, the circuit-constructor relationship was flipped on its head.

By the mid-1970s, around the same time that Kerry Packer was reaching similar conclusions about the value of sports broadcasting in Australia, Ecclestone was quietly inserting clauses that required each circuit to hand over their TV rights to his organisation, the Formula One Constructors' Association. They did so without hesitation, a tribute both to his negotiating skills and to the staggering naivety that underpins many sports administrators, then as now.

The 2005 Ashes was cricketainment as no marketeer could have conceived - like a soap opera or a prime-time reality TV show, only better

Ecclestone had started life as a used-car salesman, but soon his business was feeding directly into the multi-billion dollar motor industry. This is why he was recently able to claim, without fear of damaging his brand, that he'd rather Formula One catered for rich over-70s who could afford to buy luxury goods than court the next generation. It is also why, in spite of the damage the verdict did to India's hopes of hosting a Grand Prix, the Uttar Pradesh government was spot on in its classification of his circus.

"Ecclestone is unique in that he is the only marketing man who runs his sport outright," says Mihir Bose, author of The Spirit of the Game - How Sport Made the Modern World. "Richard Scudamore runs the Premier League, Sepp Blatter runs FIFA, but neither of them is bigger than the board they control. Ecclestone is more like the Michelin-starred chef of Formula One. He cooks the dishes, so he runs the kitchen, and by extension the restaurant too, because without his skill there'd be no business. If anyone tries to challenge him, he can simply take his services elsewhere."

There is only one sports administrator of recent vintage who can match Ecclestone's chutzpah on the world stage. For the first three extraordinary years of the IPL's existence, Lalit Modi really did become bigger than the board he controlled. The fact that no one could agree whether this was a blessing or a curse only exacerbated the sport's turmoil.

"Does cricket need a Bernie Ecclestone? I think definitely it does," says Modi in an interview for Death of a Gentleman, a forthcoming film about cricket's dysfunctional governance. Modi even studied Ecclestone at close quarters by shadowing him for a year prior to setting up the IPL, and when he bypassed the BCCI's state associations to sell his franchises to a combination of venture capitalists and big businesses, he pulled off a coup of which his mentor would have been proud.

Not just cricket: Brand IPL is not only about events on the field

Not just cricket: Brand IPL is not only about events on the field © Getty Images

"The IPL didn't just come out of nowhere," says Modi. "I studied television patterns of leagues for 14 years. Fan patterns, licensing, merchandising. I ran a business, I understood the psyche of the people. And then we applied all of that to the IPL and it was a great product.

"But moving forward, we are getting sloppy as administrators," he warns. "The internet is everywhere, consumers have a million times more options than I had in my childhood. How do we keep our fans coming and watching us and not watching a live entertainment show, or tennis or football? This is Marketing 101, which is what our cricket boards have zero understanding of."

Formula One, like Test cricket, is a sport of intense complexity if you're looking to get immersed. The rules are detailed and ever-evolving (in stark contrast to, say, football, which took several decades to endorse goal-line technology and is still recovering from the introduction of the back-pass rule in 1992). Both sports even use the same acronym, DRS, to describe a layer of technological advancement that would baffle any ordinary passer-by.

But Formula One, like T20, is also a sport of crash, bang, wallop - open to anyone with a passing interest in fast-paced action, done and dusted in a digestible three-hour window. Personally speaking, I know as much about option tyres and homologation deadlines as the average IPL fan might know of Don Bradman's average, but that did not prevent me from revelling in the thrill of the chase during last year's Hungarian Grand Prix, as Lewis Hamilton sliced his way through the field from the back of the grid to finish third and reignite his World Championship challenge.

In the world of sports business, some people are simply worth the hassle, which is why the ECB's banishment of Kevin Pietersen was a strategic brain fade

Counter-intuitively, my ignorance of the sport has helped me warm to the sportsman. Those who know him better than I ever will say that Hamilton is a self-centred man-child, prone to mood swings and tantrums, not to mention prickly relationships with his team-mates. Yet I found myself rooting, with a fervour I could never have previously imagined, for a brash young Brit with diamonds in his ears and a talent so tangible it transcended his machinery. In the serious world of sports business, some people are simply worth the hassle, which is why the ECB's banishment of Kevin Pietersen was a strategic brain fade on any number of levels. After all, if "star players" are integral to the IPL's appeal, how on earth can Test cricket possibly claim the sporting high ground without them?

I clearly wasn't alone in my appreciation of Hamilton's performances. In December he was crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year - a peculiar but prestigious award that is less a definitive verdict on the Best of British and more a barometer of national relevance. You might disagree with the choice of recipient but you can never deny they've captured the public's imagination, and it is here that Formula One once again gets the jump on its rivals.

The success of Ecclestone's travelling circus, like that of the Olympics and the football World Cup, depends on it retaining a genuinely global appeal. Hamilton sealed the Championship in Abu Dhabi live on terrestrial TV, in front of millions of armchair viewers, which gave him a larger slice of the attention than the bookie's favourite, golfer Rory McIlroy, who at least had his BBC-televised win at the Open to keep him in second place. As for Moeen Ali, unlikely bowling hero of England's Test series win over India and potentially one of the most important cultural icons the game has ever produced, his Sky-restricted efforts were so invisible to the great British public, he didn't even get a nomination.

Synergy anyone? Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel tries his hand at batting on Melbourne's St Kilda beach

Synergy anyone? Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel tries his hand at batting on Melbourne's St Kilda beach © Getty Images

It wasn't always thus for Test cricket, especially not in England. In 2005, it encountered a perfect storm, the conditions for which can never be recreated. That summer's Ashes was the heavyweight championship of the world, the undefeated holders against the eager young challengers in five rounds of ceaselessly gripping action. This was cricketainment as no marketeer could ever have conceived - the perfect blend of talent and personality, drama and narrative, played out on national free-to-air television across an entire summer, like a soap opera or a prime-time reality TV show, only better because it served the needs of diehard fans and casual consumers alike.

It ought to have been the springboard to new and greater things for Test cricket. Instead the sport shrivelled, almost from the moment the ticker tape had been cleared from Trafalgar Square, and England found themselves being outplayed in front of deserted stadiums on their subsequent tour to Pakistan. The loss of terrestrial coverage was critical, of course, but the loss of nerve was more galling.

"Test cricket is marketed like medicine, or broccoli," says Gillis. "The message is 'get it down you, it's good for you'. The people and organisations running it display a fundamental lack of confidence in the product."

Who has the gumption to sugar Test cricket's pill? As Sanjay Manjrekar once astutely noted: "For Test cricket to survive, Rahul Dravid must earn more money playing Tests than Suresh Raina does playing T20."

Ecclestone's ideal consumer, the 70-year-old rich man, would doubtless prefer the Saturday of a Lord's Test to a mass-marketed evening of T20

The fact that he did not, and the fact that the mass market doesn't appear to care that he did not, implies that the format is about as accessible to such consumers as vinyl is to the average music fan. It embodies the glories that have brought the business to this point, and its aficionados would argue that, in terms of its immersive qualities, the format has never been bettered. But in the age of the easy download, how many first-time listeners are realistically willing to make the space on their shelves?

Some might argue that Test cricket is "too big to fail", as the City once said to the bankers. But the challenge of finding it a sufficiently roomy window in cricket's calendar, let alone redressing the inequalities among its teams, requires the sort of enlightened governance that the sport so manifestly lacks. The question is not so much whether there's a will to save Test cricket, because wishful thinking alone will never restore a public-sector ethos to the world of sports administration. The question is whether there's a market that could make the saving of Test cricket financially worthwhile.

Until a few years ago, golf's trans-Atlantic showpiece, the Ryder Cup, suffered from many of Test cricket's problems. It is another team game played by individuals, in this case multi-millionaires who saw little point in paying their own way to win a mildly prestigious trinket. So, many of the best players were either unavailable or under-committed because they had got a better deal elsewhere. Now look at the event, a corporate behemoth with the power to define a player's legacy, escalate their appeal to sponsors, and produce miracles at Medina as a not-insignificant side effect.

In theory, it is the obvious model for Test cricket to copy - and the Ashes, in particular, has begun schmoozing the corporate pound with alacrity. After all, Ecclestone's ideal consumer, the 70-year-old rich man, would doubtless prefer the Saturday of a Lord's Test to a mass-marketed evening of T20, just as he might buy a ticket for the men's final at Wimbledon, or take a spring break to Augusta for the Masters. Test cricket's core clientele includes the exact same fans who have helped turn Roger Federer and Tiger Woods into two of the highest-paid sportsmen the world has ever seen. All things being equal, it's a huge opportunity to cash in.

Brake for cash: Ecclestone walked away from the Indian Grand Prix when the authorities proposed taxing it as entertainment, not sport

Brake for cash: Ecclestone walked away from the Indian Grand Prix when the authorities proposed taxing it as entertainment, not sport © Getty Images

But, of course, all things in Test cricket are far from being equal. Who, with the greatest respect to the nations involved, would be willing to pump the necessary investment into matches involving, say, Bangladesh or West Indies - or frankly, any of the teams outside the Big Three - especially if they were to be hosted not at Lord's or Edgbaston but at one of those expensively refurbished grounds such as Cardiff or the Ageas Bowl? Test cricket is a hard enough sell but when supply is not merely erratic but completely outstripping demand, the problem becomes exponentially more complicated.

What would Ecclestone do in such circumstances? He would do exactly as he does in his Formula One paddock, of course. He would load his investment into the teams that bring home the revenue, and leave the rest to be pecked at by the crows. And that, in essence, is what England, India and Australia set out to emulate when they seized control of the ICC's finances last year.

A less paranoid sport would never have countenanced such a retrograde step but cricket's vulnerability is writ large across its features. Hence Clarke's litigious attitude towards all threats, real and imagined, and his determination that whatever shape the revolution may take, he will keep himself on the side of the guys with the most guns.

However, by shrinking its own horizons in such a calculated manner, cricket succeeds only in cramping the style of its finest exponents. Whether it is Pakistanis excluded from the IPL, West Indians at war with their board, or adopted Englishmen who don't fit into their team ethos, the sport's prevailing mood is one of rebellion. The notion of loyalty, the founding principle of international sport, is becoming an increasingly dirty word.

As Packer showed almost four decades ago, every man in this sport has his price. However, only a handful of cricket's competitions seem capable of delivering the value that the best players place on their all-too-short-lived careers - and unless an accident of birth (or, increasingly in England's case, an act of migration) has landed that player a chance to ply his trade for England, India or Australia, those options are limited still further.

Imagine how Test cricket would look if the likes of Viv Richards and Aravinda de Silva had been denied their opportunities simply because their employers lacked the clout to raise a team - that is how the future is in danger of playing out. The IPL has some serious flaws, as the Mudgal Report has emphatically demonstrated; however, as a competitive entity it is hard to fault. Thanks to the US-style draft system on which it is founded, there have been five different winners in the space of seven seasons, and its meritocratic ethos has turned overseas recruits like Chris Gayle into megastars.

"Power has shifted to the franchisee… [they] could, if they wished, simply buy out the players and create their own cricket structure…"

Could a franchise structure be adapted for Test cricket's purposes? Could Kumar Sangakkara and Kane Williamson form the engine room of a formidable five-day outfit, spearheaded by Dale Steyn and backed by Shakib Al Hasan as the spinner? The question may be sacrilege but the answer depends on how desperately we want to save a mighty sport. For if there's one unequivocal lesson to be learnt from the past 40 years of sports business, it is that the devil will always take the hindmost.

Andrew Miller is a former editor of the Cricketer. @miller_cricket