There is a cricket overkill today and it’s time for everyone concerned – advertisers and administrators – to wake up and reflect..

Ramanujam Sridhar

Try some other media opportunity this quarter (even beach volleyball would be better) and see what happens.

The fact that I spent five years in college trying to study economics is something that I don’t usually advertise. The reasons for that are pretty obvious. I spent more time listening to the cricket commentary over my trusted Philips transistor and watching movies in the cinema halls of Madras as it used to be called (particularly Blue Diamond which had continuous shows) and not so much time in the classrooms of Loyola College, so my knowledge of economics is a bit like the knowledge of most people about Duckworth Lewis! And yet, I have vague memories of a text book on micro-economics written by K. K. Dewett that was prescribed reading for us (see, I actually remember something three decades later). I also remember reading one particular theory referred to as ‘diminishing marginal utility’ from this book (I had never read or heard of Paul Samuelson till I got into IIM).

Now, I know how interesting economics can be for you, dear reader, but being the restrained writer I try to be, I shall not wax eloquent on the scintillating subject, but cut the cackle and come to the horses, as the character from Dickens might say. This particular theory talks about a hungry person and how much the first chapatti means to him and how much he might be willing to pay for it. However, with each additional chapatti that he has, the utility of the first chapatti, which incidentally might have even been a life-saver, begins to pall and continues to diminish with each additional one and actually turns negative at some point in time. The wonderful game of cricket which I watch, love, revere and which is responsible for my travel all over the world has become precisely that, the eleventh chapatti, for me and I daresay for millions like me not only in India but all over the world.

While my views in isolation may not mean too much, the growing tiredness and indifference of even diehard cricket fans like me means that the average viewer is watching even less cricket than I am and that has worrying implications for all the brands and advertisers who seem to be putting so much effort and money behind the once hallowed game that had us forgetting our family, business and sleep for so many years.

So, what are you doing tonight?

Cricket is being played 365 days a year, sometimes there is more than one match a day that is being televised. I have an uncle who too follows cricket, without my fervour thankfully, who calls me on the odd day that no match is being shown on TV and asks me solicitously, “How will you manage today, there is no live match on TV!” He was reasonably certain that I would suffer from withdrawal symptoms. Of course, I would not be too worried as there would always be some highlights package or the other on TV! But seriously, over the last several months I have watched so much television that I get inside edges for four in my sleep, have visions of free hits during particularly boring presentations by clients, see switch hits when employees crib and just in case my wife is reading this (unlikely though), I hardly ever get images of the whirling skirts of the cheerleaders!

Just to put things in proper perspective, let’s take a look at some of the cricket that I have been watching over the last several months. Mind you, there is no denying the fact that a lot of the cricket has been of outstanding quality and gripping, to say the least. I watched South Africa beat Australia in Australia in both the tests and the one-dayers. I watched South Africa become the number 1 test team in the world and promptly lose to Australia again at home even as it won the one-day series. I watched the T20 World Cup and the Ashes, not to forget the seven-match one-day series between Australia and England. Why do cricket administrators love the number seven? Didn’t they learn numbers like three and five in kindergarten? Then was the Champion’s Trophy where our interest dropped the moment India made a speedy exit. In the meanwhile, New Zealand was in Sri Lanka and we too went to Sri Lanka for a tri-series.

Then came the Champions League from my mobile service provider Airtel. I wish it had invested the same money given to New South Wales, Victoria, Trinidad and Tobago and the team from South Africa in its networks. Why should money be paid for the development of eight-year-olds in Australia, when most Indian kids play in the streets? The network doesn’t deliver, particularly in cities such as Mumbai, and the frequency of the call drops exceeds the misfields of the Indian cricket team. This mother of all promotional events was a damp squib for Indian viewers and Indian advertisers too, one suspects, as none of the IPL teams came anywhere close to being semi-finalists. As feared the TRPs were lower than Ishant Sharma’s batting average.

In the meantime, there was a pointless exercise called KPL in Bangalore which demonstrated the greed of the local association and where Robin Uthappa demonstrated how he could butcher the bowling! I am sure I have missed a few others that happened in this time period. And now is the mother of all battles! Seven (yes, there is that number again) one-dayers between an injured Australia and an India recovering from injuries, which at the time of writing, is poised at one all. Nor can we forget that Sri Lanka will be here when England will be in South Africa, West Indies will be in Australia, New Zealand and Australia will play each other before the T20 World Cup in Australia and the cricket viewer will follow most of the players to hospital!

Your bench or mine?

The software industry discovered this great concept of recruiting people in hordes and then making them sit on the bench till the next project came along. Busy HR managers travelled the length and breadth of the country with their briefcases bulging with appointment orders for fresh engineering graduates. I always used to visualise them going to the colleges with tempos and lorries in tow so that they could quickly load these more than eager engineers into them, before they changed their minds, and send them for training. These trained engineers would then be put on the bench, ready for battle the moment their next project was signed up.

Yes, these companies had tremendous bench strength, often running to a few thousand. Now with the plethora of injuries that every cricket team is being exposed to, the teams with the greater bench strength will win. Australia has come to India without Haddin, Clarke, Bracken and Ferguson. Hopes is injured, Lee is flying back and Paine is already on the flight back home. India is without Zaheer Khan and Yuvaraj did not play the first game. Sehwag has just returned from injury. England has lost Pietersen and Flintoff while New Zealand is only New as Zealand seems to be injured, so many of their players are out of the game.

Why this spate of injuries? It is obviously because the boards of cricket across the world perhaps fear the game may not be around for much longer, so they are organising matches as though there is no tomorrow. Well, at this rate, there will be no tomorrow for cricket. What is the point in watching cricket with depleted teams, tired players day in and day out?

So, what should companies do?

I think the time for companies which are actively into cricket and spending millions need to take a step back and a deep breath. They should do what investors do when the stock market gets overheated - take a break. Is this discontent with cricket the isolated ranting of an over-zealous fan or a genuine problem? There is a need for advertisers to go beyond a cursory look at TRPs (which are dropping anyway) into a detailed analysis of what consumers are saying through the length and breadth of this country.

Understand the real discontent of the consumer who is actually paying good money to buy tickets and the viewers like me who spend hours in front of the television screen. The basic infrastructure in the stadia continues to be pathetic, and consumers cannot even go to the toilet, lest they throw up, so miserable and inadequate are they. The channels cannot continue to beam commercial after commercial in the first ball and the sixth ball of the games. We are ready to use our remote controls and watch something else.

Cricket is currently heading towards the ICU, entrusted as it has been to used car salesmen who are running boards. They are living by the week and companies are playing into their hands. The time has come for advertisers to back off and take a sabbatical from the game. Try some other media opportunity this quarter (even beach volleyball would be better) and see what happens. Do not follow the herd as there is increasing discontent with the game and the way it is being run. In fact, it is only the advertiser and the advertising agency that can bring sense to the BCCI and all the other boards who seem equally mad. The Australia-India series may have high viewership and full stadia as India should win, unless they continue to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but the warning signs are loud and advertisers must heed the signs and not be misled.

As for me, I am going to catch up with my movies. I just saw Wake up Sid. I wish advertisers and administrators would wake up too.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 5, 2009)
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