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A Game Played Between Advertisers

No other sport is as advertiser-friendly. Cricket is selling like nothing else, says S. ANAND

THINK OF one element in the pyjamas-turned- knickers version of cricket that does not carry an endorsement. Think hard. Branded bats, pads, shirts, shoes. The ground on both the bowling ends sponsored, appropriately, by Emaar MGF (Dubai-based real estate giant now in India to build — what else — malls). Each available space inscribed with a message.

Has cricket actually become an interruption between ads? What is real is the televisual spectacle. The 3-D view of the wagon wheel, the replay, the snickometer, the boundaries package, master blaster — each sponsored and pre-sold as a slot. There were about 3,000 seconds of spots per Twenty20 match, about 50 minutes of the three-hour spectacle, sold at Rs 10 lakh for a 10-second spot (against the normal Rs 2 lakh). This is not counting the impatient exploitation of the briefest moments of non-cricketing action, the six seconds between the bowling of two balls beamed as an Airtel-sponsored picture-withinpicture. The match, for those few moments, is encased in an advertisement. When people started watching 50-over matches piecemeal — the first 10 and the last 10 overs — advertising slots during these minutes began to cost more. It therefore made sense to reduce the game to a television-friendly 20 overs, the length of a Bollywood film (and thus screen them in multiplexes).

The T20 World Cup was beamed to 105 nations. Cricket is widening its base, snaring more consumers for products. And it will be played, to please the sponsors, every two years. Says David Richardson, ICC’s manager, “Although you’ll be selling less advertising than during ODIs, it will be more expensive.” ESPN-Star Cricket, the official broadcaster, is said to have raked in over Rs 140 crore ad revenue from the 27 matches. “This is insensitive marketing. Eyeballs have become more important than balls,“ laments Prasoon Joshi of McCann-Erickson. NDTV’s sports editor Sonali Chander was recently forced to end an interview with Sachin Tendulkar with a mandatory question on Sunfeast multigrain biscuit.

No other field game is as advertiser- friendly. If the television screen shrank to accommodate an ad during a football or basketball match, There would be howls of protest. But the cricket watcher has been inured by commercials. Cricket, structurally, even in its bikinified avatar — where the cheerleaders have better bodies than the players — allows the time and the space for invasive ads. Since the players themselves are super-brands, this is not seen as unnatural. We simultaneously see the players in action on the field and off it, within the space of the match. For Hero Honda, Yuvraj “signifies a new India — confident, fearless and ready to take on the world”. Another bike ad says: “Next-generation cricket, nextgeneration bike.”

As the commentator tells the score, he is cut off mid-sentence and we see a brash middle class family getting a friend to come to their house at knife-point to appreciate their Greenlam furniture. And by the time we have half-seen how Hutch has become Vodafone,the bowler has finished his run-up and is about to deliver the ball; sometimes we even miss the first ball. When the last ball of an over is a wide, not expected by the editor sitting at the broadcaster’s studio in Singapore, we quickly see the advertisement that has been lined up. Cricket is the interruption. One must get on with the real game — the selling of products. This is the mallification of cricket. The T20 fits the consumerist 10 percent of India, driven by an economy growing at 10 percent, like a T.

The stakes are high. In 2006, Harish Thawani, chairman of Nimbus Sports, paid $612 million — the highest in cricket history — for television rights to Indian cricket for four years. Neo Sports, Nimbus’s cricket channel, has already booked Rs 75 crore worth of advertising for the India-Australia series. No other global sport is played in three versions, making for a larger pool of active cricketers — at least 50 for the three versions — who can endorse hundreds of products that need to be sold. If you factor in the players to be patronised by the Indian Cricket League (propped up, unsurprisingly, by a television group) and the BCCI’s Indian Premier League, there will be more players to reckon with.

Umberto Eco once observed that the advent of videography redefined the scope and structure of weddings forever, investing them with grandeur, pomposity and spectacle. Television has done that to cricket. We still have not reached the point of supersaturation. What will happen in another 10 years? Ten10 and annual World Cups? That will be another ball game.

Oct 06, 2007
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