Magazine article Newsweek

Bowling for Bucks

Magazine article Newsweek

Bowling for Bucks

Article excerpt

Byline: Jason Overdorf

Beloved cricket is becoming big business in India.

By today's sports logic, cricket should be dead. In its purest form, the game takes five days to play. Its upper lip remains so stiff that a batsman who declares himself out when the umpire blows the call gets cheers instead of boos. Its heroes aren't giants, either of height or girth; the low penetration of performance-enhancing drugs is painfully obvious. Some players, like Australian spin bowler Shane Warne, look like they've just set down a plastic cup of beer and climbed out of the bleachers.

Strangely, though, cricket thrives. Over the past month or so, two new cash-rich professional leagues have been unveiled, ESPN Star Sports has launched a 24-hour channel devoted to the sport and a new, faster version of the Cricket World Cup is gaining steam. Based on future sponsorship rights being paid to the International Cricket Council, it's likely cricket over the next few years will earn well in excess of $2 billion, twice what it's done since 2000. The reason: new competitive forces within India, as well as a burgeoning and cricket-crazed Indian middle class, are making the underdog sport big business. Australia may have won the last two World Cups. But James Fitzgerald, ICC spokesman, says that "it's no secret India is becoming the financial powerhouse of the sport."

Cricket is the cultural unifier of India, the most populous and most passionate of cricketing nations (which also include England, Australia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka). Even bigger than Bollywood (which is limited to the Hindi-speaking population), televised cricket matches can capture up to 60 percent of the Indian viewing audience, which amounts to 450 million people. Yet the country has won a World Cup only once, thanks in part to bad management by its administrative body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which has failed to promote talent in recent decades. Political concerns dictate the selection of the national team (which favors players from the state of Maharashtra, which has historically dominated the BCCI). Local and state feeder teams are chronically underfunded and receive scant media attention.

Media tycoon Subhash Chandra, chairman of India's largest listed television company, Zee Entertainment, aims to change that. Last month he unveiled plans for a breakaway Indian Cricket League, with a $1 million prize for the champions and player salaries as high as $400,000 (top players in domestic leagues currently make about $32,000 in India, and rarely more than $80,000 even in England). …

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