Strangling a sport

Last Updated: Sat, Nov 17, 2012 19:00 hrs

The Board of Control for Cricket in India or BCCI has not been known for its ability to think long term. True, it could argue that the spectacular success in this country over the past decade or so of the game it has steered should suggest it knows what it is doing. But there are repeated instances of the BCCI’s willingness — indeed, eagerness — to push for a quick cheque now as opposed to working towards the longer term health of the game, in all its versions. That is, of course, the exact opposite of how a sports administrative board should behave. Consider the most recent examples, connected to the ongoing series. England’s team is visiting India, and is playing the first Test of that series at the moment. However, the readers of British newspapers have to do without photographs of the action. Why? It turns out that the BCCI has excluded accredited photo agencies from the stadiums where the matches are being played, causing the British media and other agencies to understandably and correctly react.

The BCCI’s argument is that images taken at the ground need to be subject to the BCCI’s control. Who can say, the board argues, if these images are then used in advertising of some sort? Of course, the News Media Coalition, which speaks out for press freedom around the world, has investigated this claim and found it doubtful to the extreme, given the accreditation rules that photo agencies have to sign, which restrict end-use. In actual fact, the BCCI just wants everyone to pick up photographs from the board’s own website — another way in which it believes in asserting control over every aspect of the game.

This assertion of control is not being done in order to ensure the game meets, say, a certain modicum of class and quality. Naturally not. Nor is this the first time this problem has arisen — in 2008, it wanted all photographs taken at the Indian Premier League to be uploaded only to its own website. As another controversy surrounding the India vs. England series shows, it is a question of both controlling every possible monetisation route, and of ensuring that only pro-BCCI views are put out there. Sky Sports’ English commentators, for example, are broadcasting to their viewers from a studio in London instead of from the stadium in Ahmedabad. Why? Because, even after buying the rights, the BCCI demanded £500,000 for “production facilities” at the ground. Indeed, the board almost shut down the legendary BBC Radio programme Test Match Special, too, before a last-minute face-saving agreement was hammered out as the English Cricket Board intervened. After all, the BCCI likes to ensure that the voices on-air owe their loyalty to the board, and not the viewer. In 2011, the board admitted that it employed some Indian commentators directly and made the rights-holding broadcaster put them on air.

Indian cricket is enjoying a moment where it has the undivided attention of a rising country. The BCCI is foolish to imagine that this will last. In order to strengthen the sport, other stakeholders must be created. There is already an aura of excessive “management” around Indian cricket — many viewers and readers feel they are being manipulated by the marketing, by the commentary, by the faux-nationalism and hasty cults of personality. Sooner or later, many will decide this is not what sport should be — and is not, anywhere in the world. At that point, the BCCI will only have itself and its greed to blame.

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