Monday, March 20, 2006

Paddy's Sports View 20th March 2006

from the "Bahrain Tribune"

Cricket fans watching matches on television should be used to it by now, of course, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. I refer to that common practice of commercial broadcasters (is there any other sort these days?) of using the fall of a wicket for an extended advertisement break. Wickets fall roughly every thirteen overs in a Test match, on average, so one per hour is about what you expect. A pretty rare event and therefore worth treasuring, you might think. Modern technology allows a highly technical analysis of the fall of the wicket, and TV companies employ experts in the commentary box to personally evaluate the footage. A sacrosanct moment then, sufficiently rare and important to merit uninterrupted transmission? But no, because the fall of a wicket is just the moment that the advertisers are waiting for, and the TV rights holder wants to maximise their returns, so that is the moment that we cut to the ads and by the time we return to the live transmission the new batsman will be taking guard.

Some TV companies in some parts of the world are worse than others in their commercial exploitation of cricket coverage. India is bad, and sure to get worse as the new rights holder (who paid over $US500m to the Board of Control of Cricket in India [BCCI] for the rights for four years) attempts to recoup their outlay. The time when ads were only between overs or at the fall of a wicket may seem soon like the golden days. To get a flavour of what it may soon be like let me cite the recent re-broadcast of the amazing South Africa v Australia One Day International in Johannesburg. Having missed the original live broadcast I sat down to watch the re-broadcast yesterday on ESPN (I am in India at the moment). As the climax of the match approached the ad breaks got more frequent and longer. With ten overs to go in the Proteas run chase it seemed that the action and the advertisements were roughly 50/50. It was unwatchable and I turned it off – and remember there are few more fanatical cricket fans than me, and this was one of the greatest games of cricket ever. I’ll buy the DVD!

When commercial considerations dominate then everything else is secondary and cricket in India is entering a period when it is the declared intent of the new masters of the game at the BCCI to exploit the commercial potential of the sport to the full. It all makes the much criticised sale of TV rights in the UK to satellite broadcasters Sky very small beer by comparison. The BCCI will want not only to allow their commercial partners to maximise their returns with advertising and promotion dominating TV coverage, they will also wish to ensure that every match that India plays fully exploits its commercial potential. And they certainly won’t want the international team to play matches that few in India will want to watch.

These dramatic changes will mean not only that the power has shifted away from the ineffable International Cricket Council (ICC) (their own fault entirely) but that it is now in the hands of a body that makes judgments solely on the money earning potential. One Day matches against Pakistan (the biggest of all money spinners) will take place frequently in any venue that can offer a big Asian population to fill the ground and a time zone that works well with peak viewing on the sub continent. This is (incidentally) a model pioneered by my old friends in Sharjah, and whilst the BCCI will take this to a new level, it is the Sharjah model that they will use. If the ICC sanctions the matches and gives their blessing that is fine. But if not they know what they can do!

So the fixture list so beloved of the ICC will be torn up and India will call the tune. The Indian viewer will see more of their beloved team and more of that team against the bigger beasts in the cricket world (especially Pakistan). And TV coverage will be like an electronic souk in which the golden jewels of the cricket will be visible only if you plough your way through the detritus of all the shoddy merchandise that will be so vulgarly on display.