By Mihir Bose
Mihir Bose is an author and journalist.
The Competition Commission of India’s decision that the Board of Control for Cricket in India has been abusing its “dominant position” and that the “BCCI shall not place blanket restriction on organization of professional domestic cricket league/events by non-members” highlights the contradictory nature of cricket and presents a huge challenge for the BCCI.
What it has exposed is that the BCCI has, in recent decades, been riding two tigers. The first tiger is the legacy one, that the BCCI is a non-profit organisation that organises cricket from the grassroots up and is therefore not subject to any competition laws. However, since the BCCI began to discover that it could sell rights to cricket matches on television for vast amounts of money and also generate a great deal of sponsorship income, it has also been riding the commercial tiger and the organisation’s main purpose has been to make as much money as possible. The Indian Premier League represents the ultimate expression of such profit-making. The founders of the IPL made it very clear that they wanted to maximise profit and Sony — which broadcast the matches when IPL was first launched — made no secret that as a mass-based Hindi entertainment platform, the bulk of whose audience was in rural India, the channel’s appeal went beyond sports channels. So, cricket had to be entertainment.
As a result, in the first IPL season, such events as Harbhajan Singh slapping Sreesanth and Shane Warne having a slanging match with Sourav Ganguly, which were incidents more out of a Bollywood movie rather than something that should take place in a cricket match, were widely watched and made the IPL the ultimate Indiantamasha, a three-hour Bollywood movie with the added attraction that unlike in a moviem you could never be sure what the concluding reel of an IPL match would show.
The Competition Commission has said these two roles are contradictory, and the BCCI cannot hop from one tiger to the other as it suits the organisation.
It must be said such a contradiction is not confined to the BCCI. This is one that affects all sports organisations, ever since sports became big business, a process that started in the mid-1980s-and exposes a fundamental fault structure in the way modern sports has developed. You could argue this the great sporting legacy of the British Empire. The sports we play were conceived by the British and they were developed by amateur bodies or clubs which shunned money.
In the case of cricket, a private members club called the Marylebone Cricket Club administered English cricket until 1968 and even now has the custody of the rules of the game. The MCC so shunned money that there was even a divide in a cricket team. Those who took no money from the game were the amateurs. They were given the grand title of Gentlemen, they had a private income and they always captained the team, while the professionals were the players and until 1952 no professional had captained England. Indeed, there used to be an annual Gentlemen versus Players match which only stopped in 1962.
While India never had such a distinction Indian cricket could not have developed without the support of the Maharajas who were the ultimate Gentlemen pouring money into the game to satisfy their own desires. In the days when the amateurs ruled, the money that came in the game was from spectators paying at the gate. In that sense, a cricket match, or any sporting event, was no different to a fun fair.
The rise of television and the sale of rights to matches changed the whole nature of cricket in India. The BCCI discovered this quite by chance as a result of the South African cricket team’s historic first visit to India in 1991. Before that, the BCCI paid Doordarshan to televise matches. Since then, Indian cricket has earned vastly more money from the sale of television rights than from gate income and the driving principle of BCCI’s commercial arm is ‘eyeballs’. How many people are watching on television also drives sponsorship income. This has taken precedence over how many people come through the gates. When I was growing up in Mumbai in the 50s there was no television.
To watch a test match you had to buy a season ticket — for all five days of a test. Such was the demand that daily tickets were not sold.
Now, test matches hardly attract spectators. Yet, the television income of the BCCI means that test cricket continues to be played.
However, it would be too simplistic to assume that the Competition Commission’s judgement means professional tournaments that rival the ones that the BCCI runs will immediately emerge. Let us assume that, as happened a decade ago, an Indian Cricket League emerges as a rival to the Indian Premier League and is sponsored by a television company.
How the BCCI impeded the ICL, leading to its demise, is well recorded. On the face of the CCI order, it would seem the BCCI cannot now do that.
The order says, “BCCI shall take all possible measure(s) to ensure that competition is not impeded”. So, the BCCI will have to be careful if it bans players who play for such a rival league or bar the rival league from hiring cricket grounds.
Ten years ago, the BCCI could use not only its power in India but its international clout to crush the ICL. International players were discouraged from joining the ICL because their cricket boards would not give them permission, and the cricketers did not want to jeopardise their chances for playing for their national teams. However, the very success of the IPL means the power of the international boards has declined sharply. So, we now have players like Chris Gayle who would rather play the IPL than play for their country. There are many such international players, often in their 30s who feel they have a few more years to earn money and would not miss a chance to join a rival to the IPL.
A rival to the IPL would also be attractive to players from Pakistan — currently not allowed to play in the IPL — and also Indian cricketers who feel they are reaching the end of their careers and either do not think they will be selected for India again or have lost their appetite for international cricket.
Similarly, local cricket organisations could develop state-level and other matches that would rival those organised by the BCCI. This is very likely in the case of Ranji matches. Once the great premier tournament in India, the Ranji Trophy’s public appeal has dimmed so much that in many parts of the country spectators are allowed in free. So, if an organisation could conceive of a state level tournament which both attracts crowds and generates income from television and sponsorship it could succeed. It might even spur more cricket at the local level. The question is, how will the cricketers who play in such tournaments link up with the national organisation of the BCCI. And there is where the Competition Commission has provided some hope for the BCCI.
The order does say the BCCI while not impeding competition must do this “while preserving the objective of development of cricket in the country”.
This is a loophole for the BCCI, but it will have to act skillfully and not behave like a juggernaut that crushes everyone in its path.
Otherwise, it will end up back in the courts and may face the same prospect as the famous lady from Riga who happily rode on the back of the tiger only to end up inside the tiger. The commission’s ruling means that now onwards the BCCI must fear that false moves could lead to suffering the same fate as the lady from Riga.
Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt