Cricket As Post-Modern Consumerism

Many people in the Americas believe that cricket is a complex old-fashioned game, probably more suitable to English village greens than modern stadia. That is primarily because the same many people in the Americas are mislead by their media and have no idea that, across the world, cricket is second only to football (soccer) in its popularity. A lot of this has to do with India, where cricket is the national sport, and the television audience is almost four times the size of the US market.

Moreover, cricket has changed with the times, developing new forms that have created additional waves of popularity and television opportunity. Fans can now select from traditional 4- and 5-day matches, matches that take about 8 hours to complete, and matches that are over in three hours. Or they can watch all three; most do. Cricket has found a way to triple its audience.

The most modern of these types of cricket is called 20/20, especially as formatted under the professional Indian Premier League (IPL) which introduced cheerleaders to cricket. The eight franchises in the IPL cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  Players are literally bought and sold on televised auctions before each season and the best cricketers in the world command multi-million dollar contracts for an 8-week gig. This is huge money and the League fetishizes that money, making sure that Bollywood royalty and industrial billionaires are featured visitors to the games.  Matches take about three hours and the crowds at the arenas for the first three seasons were extraordinary even though the TV treats the games as prime time spectacles.

Moreover — and the point of this post — the League flourishes because of the wild generosity of advertizers and the looseness of the IPL rules on what can be placed on a uniform, on a pitch or on equipment. I was reminded of this by a great article on cricinfo by Rahul Bhattacharya.

Watching the IPL is like encountering one of those post-modern narratives that seeks to satirise consumerism. Surely, one thinks, this must be a critique of the contemporary world and [Commissioner] Lalit Modi not its marketing whiz but its artistic seer.

The player outfits look like a collage of flyers. Excluding the team crest, they wear two logos on the front, two on the “non-leading arm”, two on the “leading arm”, and a big one at the back. The trousers sport a logo on each leg. The helmets and caps have one at the rear and another on the side. The umpires are similarly draped, though they haven’t such a variety.

The beautiful baize of the field is defaced by anywhere between five and eight giant logos, one or two on the straights, and the remaining square. Inside the advertising boundary boards, the boundary triangles carry branding. So do the sightscreens; so do the stumps. The fibreglass of the dugouts is tattooed in logos. There is a blimp in the sky. A giant screen constantly fizzes with advertisements. The banners in the crowd can be sponsored (“Cheer your Citi”).

Watching on the telly one sometimes loses a horizontal quarter to ads, sometimes a vertical quarter, sometimes both together. Along the bottom, there are text promos the whole while.  As many viewers have noted with horror, this season features ads between not just overs but between deliveries, cunningly zooming in and out of the giant screen sometimes. Besides, there are two “strategic time-outs”. These provide 10 minutes of pure, cricket-free ads. These have been sold to Maxx Mobile: perhaps the first instance, as somebody said, of a sponsored ad-break.

Bhattacharya notes that most Indians are not participants in sports and are simply consumers.  They treat cricket on TV in the same way as they treat the popular saas-bahu, family soap operas — they will watch whichever seems to be most exciting at that moment, and huge sums of money are exciting.  In India, money “is the parameter to judge a profession, a work of art, a life … It empowers and it attracts power.”

The 20/20 form within a small high-talent league system is the most likely type of cricket to break through in the North American market.  It may take advertizers and networks some time to catch up to Indian expertise in its exploitation.

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