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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 7, February 11, 2023

Big data and big dollars are changing cricket | Rushikesh Gawade

Friday 10 February 2023


by Rushikesh Gawade *

Technology and the enhanced scope for money have reshaped cricket and the way people interact with it. But will the game’s essence be lost in the process?

Cricket is famously revered in India. Sometimes referred to as a ‘religion’ because of its huge popularity, for many years when the national team played, people in villages across the country would crowd around televisions to watch. If a TV was not available, people would carry transistor radios to listen to the commentary. During test matches, the performance of certain players would dominate conversation in the streets. Cricket brought people together.

In the past few years however, the way people interact with cricket has changed. Fans tend to own smartphones which allows them to watch cricket matches anywhere. It is less of a communal activity now. It is only during world cups or for India versus Pakistan matches that people tend to come together to watch cricket.

And nowadays there is so much cricket. Tests, one-dayers, T20 … the calendar is full of games. English player Ben Stokes blamed [1] his early retirement from one-day matches in July 2022 on there being too much cricket. Former West Indies fast bowler-turned-commentator Michael Holding stepped away [2] from the game after more than 50 years and said he would not miss it. “This game is not the game that I started playing and the game that I knew. It’s different,” he said.

The large scale communication that has come with new technologies has opened up more possibilities for commercialising the interaction between cricket and spectators. With the number of people engaging with the game reaching new heights, cricket matches have become an important advertising avenue.

Until 1992, India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan charged the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) a sizeable amount of money to broadcast matches happening on Indian soil. Thirty years later, Disney Star paid US$3 billion [3] to the International Cricket Council (ICC) for the rights to broadcast matches in India from 2024-2027. The broadcast rights to Indian Premier League (IPL) for the period between 2023 and 2027 were sold for over US$6 billion.

The IPL has paved the way for a new style of cricket, where money is the driving force, replacing traditional regional or national loyalties. Players from around the world are auctioned to the highest bidder to form teams. Loyalty lasts as long as the contract stipulates. Each season the process is repeated. The IPL has become so successful since its launch in 2008 it spawned three copycat leagues in 2023 alone in the UAE, the USA and South Africa.

The rapid spread of online fantasy sport platforms [4] around cricket has also opened up new possibilities for monetising the interaction between the game and its spectators. Online fantasy sports have flourished due to the rapid proliferation of smartphones, realtime global communication and easy access to digital banking. The industry is worth billions of dollars.

While not the same as online betting [5], which is illegal in India, these platforms give fans a direct monetary stake in the sport they are following. What happens on the field can affect a person’s wallet. “Team hai to maza hai” (You will enjoy the game only if you have made your team on the fantasy platform) is the slogan of one of the key online fantasy platforms in India.Fantasy platforms claim they enhance the level of fan engagement with sports.

But researchers also argue [6] fantasy platforms can distract spectators from fully embracing aspects of the game that make sport important for people, such as the joy of cheering on a team working together, rather than dissecting the quality of individual players.

If you were to gauge the success of cricket by the number of people getting involved or by the amount of money being exchanged, the game appears to be reaching new heights of success day by day. But something of the game’s very essence seems to be losing out in the process. Michael Holding, in the same interview where he lamented the game being different also said: “What [the ICC] are trying to do is manage the money that the game can bring in, not the game, and that is very disappointing.”

Technology has brought big changes to the sport but with it challenges: an overcrowded schedule, rule changes to make the game ‘more attractive’, players’ mental health and risk of burnout. To avoid these issues getting out of hand, cricket’s guardians could explore views that do not gauge the success of the game only in terms of its reach or the amount of money it can generate.

(Author: Rushikesh Gawade is a PhD research scholar in sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai. He has been following the game of cricket since his childhood)

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