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Home > Business > Columnists > Sucheta Dalal

Who says the World Cup is about cricket?

February 17, 2003

It's just not cricket you'd say. The gentlemen's game is completely degraded by unruly fans who stoned and blackened Mohammed Kaif's house or took out a funeral procession for the 'dead' cricket team.

But then the World Cup is not just about cricket either. It has scores of different businesses riding on it and the sums involved run into billions of dollars.

So let us forget about our cricketers' non-performance for a moment and look at those powerful people who stay in the background but pull all the strings that affect this six-week extravaganza.

Let us start with the media hype. Although television and newspapers have played the biggest role in hyping up the World Cup, they are at the lowest end of the megabuck chain.

The advertising does run into millions of rupees, but the factors that stoke reader/viewer interest are often insidious.

For instance, celebrity columnists have replaced all staff reporters who covered the game, making readers believe that they have direct access to expert opinion.

The celebrity columns as well as the photographs that accompany each match report and their precise placement in the newspaper are the result of detailed negotiations and paid for by advertisers.

The reporters still play a role, but it is usually that of ghost writing celebrity columns.

On television, the moolah only gets bigger. On the one hand, there is all the official activity and controversy surrounding the official sponsorship, which I will not go into.

On the other hand, there are the losing bidders who resort to what is called 'ambush' marketing so that they don't lose out on a captive audience. The most famous 'ambush' of an official sponsor was Pepsi's 'Nothing official about it' campaign; since then the tricks of ambush-advertisers are rapidly creating new case law in the entertainment industry and are providing business to consultants and lawyers employed in devising defensive strategy.

Apart from World Cup merchandising, television companies and game-specific advertising, you see restaurants and bars working overtime to drag people into their eateries with the lure of large projection screens and special World Cup menus. If you add World Cup-related tourism to this cast of cricket ancillaries, the business runs into a few billion rupees.

All these elements play a major role in priming the public to expect and demand six weeks of pure adrenalin pumping excitement. It also sets people up for exaggerated anger and disappointment when matches end up in humiliating defeat.

Think of the cricket-crazy viewers for a moment. Every single over that they watch on the screen finishes with a pulsating advertisement, showing some cricketing idol lofting a thrilling sixer or taking an acrobatic catch.

Cut to the actual game and he shuffling back to the pavilion having thrown away his wicket without scoring. A few dozen overs later, the advertisements begin to irritate so much that they end up feeding viewers' fury.

But all this fades into insignificance, when you look at the biggest feeder of cricket mania -- I am talking about all the massive lucre attached to cricket betting.

Here is how it works.

The all-India gross bets placed per match are anywhere between Rs 2,000-2,500 crore (Rs 20-25 billion) depending on the teams. Mumbai alone accounts for nearly Rs 700-1,000 crore) Rs 7-10 billion of betting volumes per match.

Although betting is illegal in India, almost anybody who can get an introduction to a bookie can place a bet. Like most informal systems the default rate is near negligible because the mafia men usually act as recovery agents.

Interestingly, the market is completely unaffected by the various expose of cricketers involved in fixing matches.

The gross bets for the World Cup are expected to be in the region of $2-3 billion from India alone. Bets are accepted on the match result, on which team or players will bat first, who will win the toss, score a century, capture the maximum wickets, et cetera.

There are bets on the outcome of each over and every ball; then there are the huge odds on unlikely events such as hat-tricks, fifties and centuries. The bookies decide the cut-off limit for each individual depending on his personal assessment of the person's net worth.

The bookies net the bets and tally positions at the end of each day. The smaller ones usually hedge their bets with larger bookies within or outside the country.

People in the know say that the major bookies are located in the United Kingdom and often hedge their bets in the legal betting market of the UK.

A new development is the emergence of major underwriters (to the bookies) from the United States. According to sources, cricket may not be popular in the USA, but there are some Indian-Americans interested in the game and the betting.

The Internet has further expanded online betting opportunities. Web sites such as www.bettingzone.co.uk or www.online-betting-guide.co.uk offer live betting on the Net.

This World Cup saw announcements by UKbetting (www.ukbetting.com) and Totalbet (www.totalbet.com) for ball-by-ball bets.

The US connection of UKbetting is through a strategic tie up with Global Interactive Gaming, which in turn is a wholly owned subsidiary of Interactive Systems Worldwide, based in New Jersey.

All this has turned cricket into a high stakes, multi-dimensional, multi-billion-dollar business, which ignites passions that are often disproportionate to a cricketer's or team's performance.

And if people fall prey to manipulative advertising that links a false sense of patriotism to cheering the cricket team, while drinking sugared water or chomping on chocolate, it only means that the advertising is working exceedingly well.

So, if a man in Bihar offers 111 coconuts, a local Bharatiya Janata party unit offers prayers for the cricket team at the Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai and a youth in Gujarat fasts for the team's performance, then it is all very na´ve and sad.

At the end of the day, you have to admit that it's just not cricket anymore; it is a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry, that has to be viewed in a correct and sober perspective.

Sucheta Dalal

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