According to one theory, cricket owes its popularity in contemporary India to its peculiarly market-friendly format. The rhythm of the game, allowing for an extended pause every six balls, is conducive to the kind of advertising model advertisers like best — diminutive and repetitive. We may conclude that ever since cricket got all the money in the world, it got all the eyeballs it needed, and more. This theory might or might not be correct. But the corporatised model of Indian cricket, or of any sport that’s treated as an out-and-out business venture, where loss or victory is determined not on the field but in boardrooms and television studios, is worth studying.
It’s the model that gauges the successes not of sportspeople, in sporting terms, but of the sport itself, in terms of how much money it attracts and how much attention it generates.
Most of our sports administrators, responsible for reviving public interest in seemingly underprivileged games like football and hockey, have embraced that model with enthusiasm. Experiments that revolve around rebranding and repackaging sports are more unique than ever, even if they tend to follow a predictable pattern. Since image-building is the prime focus of such exercises, every sport is promoted today exactly as a potentially cash-rich corporate brand.
It’s usual these days to see celebrities from Bollywood, which among other things is India’s richest business constituency, roped in for expensive endorsement campaigns to popularise sports that haven’t got their TRP due. Sometimes, corporate-sponsored television adverts are made, where sportspeople themselves are seen appealing to the viewer for moral support ahead of some big game. Members of the Indian national hockey team were part of such an ad last year, presenting a self-righteous and heartbroken account of their recent on-field victories which had yet gone unnoticed.
In the light of all this, the Indian Olympic Association’s (IOA) decision to appoint Salman Khan as their “goodwill ambassador” — whatever that means — makes a lot of sense. It makes business sense: a superstar like Khan will turn heads and is sure to make his substantial fan base turn on the TV sets beaming in the images live from Rio. And since great entrepreneurial moves are always a win-win, the contract makes business sense even from Salman’s standpoint, whose new film Sultan — billed as a “sports drama” based on the life of a wrestler — is soon to be out. No better forum than the biggest sporting stage in the world to promote a film about sports.
Some have lashed out against the IOA for choosing an ambassador as mired in controversy as Khan. Why not someone else, they argue. Why not a sportsperson? Milkha Singh, the former ace runner, who was, and remains, vocally against the move, could as well have gone ahead and said, “Why not me?” The wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, too, thought it in poor taste for a film personality to be using the Olympic Games as a promotional vehicle. (What failure for all the publicists of Sultan to have had a pro wrestler turn against them!)
Yet there’s an underlying similarity between both the pro and contra views that have been voiced in this debate. The assumption common to the two is that the health of a sport rests quite heavily on its public perception, and on the extent of popular support it garners. It’s a view according to which having the right brand ambassadors and media managers matter as much as having the right players out in the middle. For the champions of this model, sporting excellence is an endeavour that begins with the marketeers and, ideally, ends with a string of Olympic golds.
The corporatised model of treating sports as an out-and-out business venture, where loss or victory is determined not on the field but in boardrooms and television studios, is worth studying.
The supposition goes thus: by marketing a sport well, one ensures that enough youngsters take to it. And by the law of numbers, if enough youngsters watch and play a game, enough talent is bound to emerge from the pool of amateurs and enthusiasts. Cricket is often cited as a working example of that rule. Yet we can never be too sure of being truthfully able to establish the link between performance and popularity in sports.
If, however, we were to refocus our energies on upgrading India’s sporting infrastructure, which is among the worst in the world, it would drastically improve our chances of winning internationally. Our athletes need world-class facilities and better equipment. They need administrative bodies and selection committees that are free of graft. But most of all, they need to be treated with some respect.
An administration that can’t ensure there are no power outages during the Olympic qualifying rounds of its athletes — this is exactly what happened in Delhi last week, due to which a couple of sprinters will have to redo their qualifiers — an administration that can’t ensure something as basic as that, doesn’t have any respect for either its sportspeople or for sports in general. It’s small wonder, then, that Indian athletes have always been bit players in the international arena. No amount of repackaging and rebranding can change that.
Let us still take heart, and try to ward off depression by looking back at the best chapter in our sporting history. It was 1936, considered the annus mirabilis of Indian hockey. Major Dhyan Chand was captaining a ragtag team of Biritsh colonial subjects, scheduled to play at the famed Berlin Olympics being organised under the aegis of Germany’s dreadful new chancellor, Adolf Hitler. All the ingredients for a good historical drama are already there.
India lost its practice game 1-4 to the hosts Germany. Worse was yet to come, many would have thought. But the script unfolded as unpredictably as any cliché-ridden Bollywood-style “sports drama”. In the subsequent league games, India went on to defeat Hungary 4-0, USA 7-0 and Japan 9-0. Playing the semi-final against France, India got the game 10-0. And so came the face off with the final rivals. Dhyan Chand’s boys were up against the formidable might of the Germans in their last game. And Hitler was in the audience.
According to differing accounts of the pre-match ceremony, the Indian team either refused to or forgot to salute the Fuhrer. Either way, the boys put up a symbolic front against fascism right on its home turf. As for the game, India defeated Germany 8-1. It was unthinkably huge, that victory. As was the Olympic Gold for field hockey that India won that year.
Such accounts are sobering to read, not least because they belong to a more innocent time, when the rules of the market hadn’t come to set the terms of the game.