Level playing field the key to wealth

On the eve of an International Cricket Council meeting that could have huge ramifications for the game’s future, a concerned fan asked: “What would happen if the star attractions in the IPL such as Mumbai [Indians] and Chennai [Super Kings] ask for a greater share of IPL broadcasting revenue than the other IPL teams? Would the BCCI use the proposed ICC model of fund distribution?”

It’s a valid query. Depending on where you stand according to the ideology compass, franchise-model sport represents the best or worst of capitalism at work. And yet – and can there be a greater irony? – most leagues, including the IPL with its limited auction purses, take great pains to ensure a level playing field. The wiser administrators in sport, and there are still a few around, have recognised that keen competition is the secret to commercial success.

Next weekend, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos face off in the National Football League’s showpiece, the Super Bowl. The Seahawks have been part of American football’s summit clash only once, back in 2006. The Broncos have been there six times, but the last trip was as long ago as 1999.

What does any of this have to do with cricket, you might well ask? Well, if you went by the financial-might-is-right argument, neither team has any business playing in the biggest game. Seattle against Denver is the kind of contest that cricket apparently doesn’t want to see more of. Goliath v Goliath is the future, with the Davids pushed to the margins. If you go by population, Seattle and Denver rank 22nd and 23rd among US cities. Franchises like New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys play in far bigger markets, and have access to a wider fan base and potentially more sponsors.

The proposed distribution model increases the disparity in a system already favouring the Big Three. © Wisden India

The proposed distribution model increases the disparity in a system already favouring the Big Three. © Wisden India

America’s game thrives, however, because of what you could call underlying ‘socialist’ principles. The league shares between half and 75% of all revenue equally among the 32 franchises. In the 1990s, it went a step further, with a supplementary revenue sharing scheme.

Even with such measures in place, there are those that worry. Jim Irsay, who owns the Indianapolis Colts, was recently quoted in the SportsBusiness Journal as saying: “It is concerning to me when someone is doubling the lowest-revenue team. My feeling is I would like to see less disparity between the three at the top and the three at the bottom.”

International cricket is not franchise sport, but it begs the question: What would Mr. Irsay think of the income disparity between India and Zimbabwe, both full members of the ICC?

Several of the arguments in recent days – and I’m not saying that they’re totally flawed – have stressed on how sport needs to be run like a business. Fair enough. The bottom line does matter. But here’s the catch. The administrators that drafted this position paper had little to do with the creation of the wealth that their respective boards enjoy. N Srinivasan did not make Indian cricket impossibly rich. Wally Edwards isn’t the reason for Cricket Australia’s bank balance. It’s the television companies and sponsors, each prompted by fan interest, which are responsible. Without eyeballs watching, the position paper would have all the value of confetti.

What sort of research has been done to show that this revamp is the way forward? If it exists, don’t the millions of fans that ultimately account for these lucrative TV deals deserve to see it?

If you think even medium term, there can be no justification for sidelining many for the benefit of the big three. To have a robust sport, you need more competitive teams. For those sides to be competitive, they need access to the sort of funds that the big boys can boast of. Academies and grassroots coaching programmes don’t build themselves.

It’s not just American sport that tries to maintain a veneer of equality. During the days when he seldom spoke of anything other than billion-dollar deals, Lalit Modi often alluded to his hopes for the IPL one day surpassing the English Premier League in terms of commercial might. But even a cursory look at how TV money was distributed among English football clubs in the 2012-13 season should tell you that a skewed playing field is not the answer.

Queens Park Rangers, who finished bottom, banked 39.75 million pounds, roughly two thirds of what Manchester United, the champions, made (60.8 million pounds). United are a global brand, with millions of followers across the globe. QPR are not even the fifth-most popular club in London.

Those that have drafted the position paper seem to have taken their cue from Spain and La Liga, which favours its top two clubs - Barcelona and Real Madrid. © Wisden India

Those that have drafted the position paper seem to have taken their cue from Spain and La Liga, which favours its top two clubs – Barcelona and Real Madrid. © Wisden India

Sadly, though, those that have drafted the position paper seem to have taken their cue from Spain and La Liga, where Barcelona and Real Madrid have negotiated separate deals for themselves in perhaps the most blatant example of financial doping that sport has ever seen.

In 2012-13, the big two in Spain each took home 140 million Euros in TV revenue. Granada, who finished bottom, had to settle for 12 million. Of course, there will be those who say that merit or excellence should be rewarded. My view is that the ‘meritocracy’ argument is the last refuge of those that have enjoyed every privilege, who simply don’t realise how hard it is for others to get a leg up to that level.

In September 2012, Jose Maria Gay de Liebana, Spain’s best known football economist, told Soccernet that Spanish football could ‘kill itself’ within five years. “La Liga’s television rights are badly sold because they are shared between two operators, when in the rest of Europe negotiations are with one party,” he said. “Also, in my opinion, the Chinese market is wrongly prioritised, when the American and Japanese are more relevant. In this way, the global reach of the contracts should be changed.”

One of his suggestions was an Iberian league, which would make the ‘lesser’ clubs less dependent on the marquee two. It’s something for the Small Seven to ponder as well. If they stick together, they have a chance to help chart a sensible course for the sport. But if they succumb to the crumbs thrown their way, they deserve little better than the famine that’s coming.


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