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Bowling for big bucks
By: Jason Overdorf
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By today's sports logic, cricket should be dead. In its purest form, the game takes five days to play. Its upper lip remains so stiff that a batsman who declares himself out when the umpire blows the call gets cheers instead of boos. Its heroes aren't giants, either of height or girth. Some players, like Australian spin bowler Shane Warne, look like they have just set down a plastic cup of beer and climbed out of the bleachers.

But strangely, cricket is thriving. Over the past month or so, two new cash-rich professional leagues have been unveiled, ESPN Star Sports has launched a 24-hour cricket channel and a new, faster-paced version of the Cricket World Cup is gaining steam. Based on sponsorship rights being paid to the International Cricket Council, it's likely that cricket over the next few years will earn well in excess of $2 billion, twice what it has since 2000. The reason: new competitive forces within India, and a cricket-crazed Indian middle class, are making the sport big business. Australia may have won the last two World Cups. But James Fitzgerald, ICC spokesman, says, "It's no secret that India is becoming the sport's financial powerhouse."

Cricket is the cultural unifier of India, the most populous and most passionate of the cricketing nations (which also include England, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka). Even bigger than Bollywood, televised cricket matches can capture 60 percent or more of the Indian viewing audience, some 450 million people. Yet the country has won a World Cup only once, thanks in part to the sclerotic Board of Control for Cricket in India, which has been failing to promote talent over the past few decades. Political concerns dictate the selection of the national team, and local and state feeder teams are chronically underfunded.

Media tycoon Subhash Chandra, chairman of India's largest listed television company, Zee Entertainment, aims to change all that. Last month he unveiled plans for a breakaway Indian Cricket League, with a $1 million prize for the champions and player salaries as high as $400,000 (top players in domestic leagues currently make about $32,000 in India, and rarely more than $80,000 even in England).

The Board of Control responded swiftly, threatening to ban players who join the new league from the international squad. When that proved unsuccessful, it announced 40 percent raises and revealed plans for its own new conference?the Premier Cricket League?which will include players from many nations and pay out $3 million to the winning team.

The new leagues will be backed by global advertisers, including Unilever, LG, Hutchison, Honda and others eager to reach Indian consumers. Average Indian incomes will triple by 2025, making India the fifth largest consumer market in the world, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Cricket, notes Guru Prasad Rao, vice president of the Mumbai-based media-buying firm Network Media, "is the one language that unites the country." Ad rates for matches are skyrocketing. Spots for a recent India-Pakistan championship game sold for $25,000 for 10 seconds (prime-time movies net $5,000).

Sponsorship rates are rising, too. Indian mobile operator Reliance Communications and PepsiCo India have reportedly paid between $60 million and $100 million apiece for rights to various contests over the next eight years, more than double what was paid between 2000 and 2007. Similarly, ESPN Star Sports is reported to have paid $1.1 billion for the broadcast rights for a package of games including two Cricket World Cups between 2007 and 2016.

What will it all mean for the sport? Just as football's English Premier League attracts the world's top players through powerful franchises backed by fanatical fans, the future could well see India displace both England and Australia as the home of the biggest cricket matches and best players.

In the short term, there will simply be more cricket?a lot more. In a country where replays of classic cricket matches draw better ratings than live broadcasts of other sports, ESPN Star Sports recently launched a 24-hour cricket channel?which will show domestic matches from Australia and England?to supplement its two existing sports channels. "I did not know how to fulfill the demand for cricket with just two channels," explained ESPN Star Sports' managing director Jamie Davis. "Forty-eight hours of cricket a day is not enough." Not for India.

Jason Overdorf, a freelance writer, has lived in New Delhi since July 2002. His work has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Newsweek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. Opinions expressed in his blogs are his own, and not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its affiliates.

This article was first published on: October 16, 2007


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