Between Wickets | Whatever the sport, the threat of disruption is ever present

A combination of sponsors’ deep pockets, television, and players seeking the highest bidder for their skills is irresistible and influences the direction a sport takes

As European football is thrown into a tizzy by the new ‘super’ league run by rich men with the primary aim of making themselves richer, the words of the American sportswriter Dave Zirin assume relevance. “Owners in the 21st century,” he wrote, “are destroying what took more than a hundred years to build.”

But there’s an old question that becomes relevant too: Whom does a sport belong to?

A combination of sponsors’ deep pockets, television, and players seeking the highest bidder for their skills is irresistible and influences the direction a sport takes. Cricket has been there before.

WSC and ICL episodes

When Kerry Packer was denied television rights to cricket in Australia despite offering more money, he signed up top international players for a league of his own, World Series Cricket (WSC).

Nearly three decades later, after Zee Television was similarly snubbed by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, it established the Indian Cricket League (ICL) with players from around the world.

Both the WSC and the ICL were rebel leagues that led to many of the players being banned. For the organisers, there was an element of hurt ego involved, but mainly it was seen as a way of squeezing more money from sport.

Both failed because they did not share the spoils with an important player — the administrators. When a compromise was reached in Australia, and Packer received the rights for his Channel Nine to broadcast matches there, WSC became irrelevant. The tournament had lasted two years, the same as the ICL in India.

The BCCI borrowed the idea, refined it, gave it their seal of approval, worked out the optics, and the IPL was born. Deep pockets of the sponsors, television, and players seeking the highest bidder for their skills had met with official endorsement and there were no more roadblocks. The establishment had joined the ranks of the money-grabbers.

The European Super League (ESL) has been envisaged as a tournament with 20 teams, 15 of them permanent with no promotion or relegation for them. Competition, the bedrock of sport is thus thrown out of the window. The Guardian summed it up neatly: “For supporters, the sense of jeopardy on which meaningful sport depends will be removed, turning elite football into a soulless series of repeat episodes.”

Cricket has been there too. Or nearly so. In 2014, India, Australia and England decided to formally take over the game. The Big Three called it ‘restructuring’. Wisden called it the ‘great carve up of world cricket’.

The Future Tours Programme would be ditched, and international cricket would be a sport among the Big Three with the others, from New Zealand to Pakistan playing supporting roles, the straight men to the jokers’ lead. Also, whatever the final configuration of teams playing against one another, there would be no relegation for the Big Three.

The first rule of international sport prevailed: He who pays the piper calls the tune. The idea fell through. While one Indian chairman of the International Cricket Council, N. Srinivasan proposed, another, his successor Shashank Manohar disposed. At any rate, the proposal was heavily criticised, and the BCCI had its own domestic legal problems to attend to.

The current dispensation did try to resurrect a portion of the grand plan, but realised that even television might tire of broadcasting endless series between India and Australia.

The threat of disruption, however, is ever present. The ICC, which attempts to keep the delicate balance between the bullies and the bullied, has not always been successful at this. Cricket being a human activity, cannot claim immunity from greed and selfishness.

Who owns sport?

So — to come back to our original question — who owns sport? Players, administrators, television, corporates? Or the fan who pours into it his love and aspirations, his intensities and desires?

You could argue that the fan is the strongest element here, for if he decides to switch off his television or refuses to buy the brand of nail clippers being advertised during breaks in play, he could bring down the sports-commercial complex.

Interestingly, as many countries move further to the right of the political spectrum, an area that lays great store by such notions as patriotism and nationalism, international sport seems to be moving in a different direction, with emphasis on clubs and franchises. Perhaps all sports aspire towards Formula One, with corporates running teams and nationality being purely incidental.

In this scenario, the average fan might prefer to watch A.B. de Villiers and Virat Kohli bat together for a franchise than two of their countrymen wear the national colours.

If cricket and other sports have lessons to learn from the ESL, it is the ease with which a traditional, popular sport can be hijacked. Because, as the marketing men keep reminding us, “the market decides.” So convenient!

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