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Cricket News - Feature Article

07/09/02

By Sohaib Alvi in Pakistan

Ambushing the Players Freedom

Anyone from among the last two generations, who has seen the re-runs of David Lean’s Dr.Zhivago, will surely wonder how educated and thoughtful leaders like Czar Nicholas II of Russia, could lose sight of the bare needs of the people they lead.

Yet, we have come across a state of affairs in the 21st century that belies all that the previous fifty years have stood for in the free world and proves the adage that leaders never learn from history. In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy writes Czar Nicholas II was “a Potemkin village in person, simple, reclusive, disliking difficult decisions and blindly convinced of his sacred relationship with the Russian people (in whose real welfare, of course, he showed no interest).”

How aptly this matches the profile of the game’s governing body today. The ICC has many achievements to its credit and in the last few years has made significant inroads in promoting the game among the penumbra of cricket playing nations. The ICC Champions Trophy, formerly Knockout Trophy, has brought together the international coterie more frequently for public interest. There have been initiatives like the captains’ conference every year and the introduction of an elite panel of umpires, whose costs have been recovered by sponsorship. The current management has been struck by the political fallout in their implementation of the ICC Championship, another well planned project.

Nevertheless, the innocent query of Queen Antoinette, best epitomises how the ICC is viewing the current remonstration by the leading players of the world. Seeing the people of France demonstrating outside the palace during the French revolution, she asked her aides what the problem was. When informed, they don’t have bread to eat, she is heard to have said: “So why don’t they eat cakes instead?”

Or is it that the ICC has decided to subscribe to George Bush’s ultimatum to the world:  “Either you’re with us or against us”?

Whatever may be the thoughts of the ICC management now, it is clear there has been a remarkable oversight, perhaps more by the member boards than by the parent body itself. It is a typical case of  forward planning that was done far earlier than its next planned implementation date. People concerned have selective memory. Some don’t read into the full ramifications of what they are signing, especially when it either does not affect them, or strengthens their hands. More importantly, officials change and in the confusion of migration in and out of office, significant decisions tend to get immersed in the footnotes. Just ask Jagmohan Dalmiya, who after initially confronting the players protest with blatant arrogance, is now shielding himself behind his predecessor’s agreements on the issue. He’s now claiming that he’s only honouring his predecessor’s signature and that he had played his part, by documenting his protest on this clause to the ICC in June this year.

When the story first broke a couple of weeks back, that players would not be allowed to endorse products that were in direct competition to the ones the sponsors of ICC tournaments market and that the agreement had been reached in august 2000, my knee jerk reaction was, someone had been sleeping on the job. Within days it was apparent that just about every member board had forgotten to tell its players what they had signed on their behalf.  In an age of professionalism it can be considered not just immoral to sign off a player’s destiny but technically illegal. In the case of those boards that do not have annual contracts with the top players, this is an act of absolute irresponsibility and introvertedness. The management officials of major one -day powers like Pakistan, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, are fortunate their players are not into any long term relationships with companies who are not ICC partners. For that matter, the Australian players have signed an agreement with ACB and the South Africans, English and the West Indians, have followed their model, albeit reluctantly and in return for a promise to review the terms for the future.

In fact, with the exception of the Indian players, no cricketers are too much affected.

Yet, the players of all countries have protested on a matter of principle and the fear that agreeing without condition will set a precedent. Why the Indians are still persisting with their protest, is because the money involved is stupendous. India is a huge market and endorsements litter the world of advertising, like the night sky of the northern hemisphere.

By one estimate, the Indian market is worth $US10 million. It is next to impossible that companies that have signed players like Sachin Tendulkar,  Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and the newest sensation, Virendar Sehwag, are going to let go. This is the media opportunity they wheel them in for. Ask the marketing executives of the cola soft drink companies and they’ll tell you they live for the moment to upstage the opposition when one is the official sponsor.

Just how aloof and confused the ICC is on this issue is best demonstrated by the words of Chief Executive, Malcolm Speed, who claimed that “no player asked clarification from the ICC” before signing individual contracts. (This is strange on its own, since laws made are announced rather than kept in files to be researched.) But, the ICC seems more bigoted in their reply to the question as to why the players were not informed. Their contention then is, “that they deal with member boards and not the players!”

 I also feel that even now, not all of the terms and conditions finalized with the official sponsors are being revealed by the ICC. Adding to the confusion, is an observation by someone that the agreement the Australian cricketers have arrived at with their board, concerns only how they will share the dividends that arise out of the World Cup, should the players not sign individual endorsement deals with non-sponsors of the ICC. That does not mean they have accepted ICC terms regarding future tournaments organised by them.

Laying down the law is not the answer to the ICC’s problem at the moment. They also have to consider the requirements of the sponsors they have on board for the Sri Lanka event and that is, the best players from each country must play in the September tournament. Considering the Indian market is what attracts all companies to sponsor cricket, especially in the region, the non-appearance of the Indian stars, will probably anger sponsors to the extent of pulling out.

This is what makes the fixated stance adopted by the ICC superiors sound so strange.

This is a time not for speeches bordering on the Churchill pronouncements against the Third Reich, but of statesmanship on the lines of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who delivered a respectable Pakistan, despite his infamous “parting of the ways” announcement, that separated The Muslim League from Congress, in their quest for independence from the British.

Perhaps the panic has set in, because the situation has arisen just weeks before the tournament is set to get underway. If the official sponsors signed up two years ago, their campaigns must have been finalized months back and the money spent on promotions and product launches planned for September. This can mean millions of dollars already invested. Likewise, advertising dollars have surely been committed by their rivals lining up with their opposing products.

The ICC has given way, by agreeing to limit their conditions to the current ICC event, perhaps only to get it going smoothly and adopting the strategy of crossing each bridge when it comes to it. However, it appears to me, that these bridges promise to be rickety ones, that go across deep gorges. I’m sure they will eventually, through their member boards, lay down conditions for the players that will limit their earning potential.

It appears the ICC is in a way, hijacking the players’ revenue earning potential to their advantage. It is much like the giant multi-national conglomerates, buying out the brand goodwill of smaller companies. As things go in the business world, such deals mean, the more the brand sells, the richer the new owners become, while the creators of the brands end up with annual profits (or losses) that are based on remains after (perennially rising) costs of manufacturing and selling these brands.

Specifically to cricket, this would mean, the harder a cricketer drives himself for self improvement and performance, the richer the ICC and his own Cricket Board become, through the sponsorship deals they make with companies that sponsor the events in which the cricketer plays. At the same time, he can either go in for short term sponsorships with rival companies, or sign long term contracts with the clause that doesn’t allow him to run campaigns during the major events, like the bi-annual ICC Trophy or the World Cup. In this case no company would commit large amounts and in case the player loses his place in the side, there is no long term contract, that continues to bring him money until he regains his place.

Players are slowly getting cornered. On one side, there is the prospect they do not appear in ICC tournaments and on the other, they forgo lucrative revenues. The ICC may have set out to banish ‘ambush marketers’ but in effect, they have ambushed the players’ freedom to manage their lives.

Whether deliberately, or out of short sightedness, the ICC have also closed the door on smaller companies, hoping to make their mark in the open market through player endorsements and related imagery. Cricketers now seem to have become the property of the big league companies, and other than knocking out their equally powerful rivals, they have in the process eliminated all hopes of smaller firms, that could have broken into their market share by generating trial and purchase of their products and services through player-based imageries.

This could be one reason why the sponsors of both parties, ICC and Cricketers, are holding firm with their contracts. For the moment, this is all they have to edge each other out, at least in the foreseeable future. This is just another battlefield where these huge, impersonal conglomerates are facing off. Cricket is the helpless prize and the Cricketer, the unfortunate loser.

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