Wimble-DONE!

andy--aAndy Murray’s victory in the Wimbledon final last Sunday reminded me a lot of the Indian victory in the Mumbai World Cup final.

Both Andy and the Indian team carried a the heavy burden of expectations on their shoulders, albeit Andy had it more in person one would have to say.

Both the home nations were waiting for a long, long time for this win, and quite desperately, though one would have to say that 77 years is a lot more than 28 years.

In both the games, the final scores of India 277-4 in 48.2 beat Sri Lanka 274-6 in 50 overs, and Andy beat Novak 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 suggested that it was an easy win, but did not quite reveal the extremely high quality of the game and the intensity of the competition.

In both the cases, the losing opponent threw everything at the winner but just was not enough on that day.

I guess in both the situations, the semi-finals were even more followed – in cricket, the India vs Pakistan one, whereas at Wimbledon, Novak’s semi-final with Del Potro was a true epic.

Both the wins were preceded by earlier losses in the finals – Andy last year and India in 2003 – that really hurt.

And when the win finally happened, the crowds of both the countries truly went berserk.

Even the politicians followed in both the cases – what with demands of Bharat Ratna for Sachin being matched by Knighthood recommendation for Andy.

And finally, both the wins were a result of tremendous self belief.

Both of them reminded me of the Iftikhar-Amitabh dialogue from Deewaar, where Iftikhhar asks Amitabh: “क्या तुम सोचते हो कि ये काम तुम अकेले कर सकते हो?” And Amitabh replies: “मैं जानता हूँ मैं ये काम अकेले कर सकता हूँ”.

MSD in Mumbai and Andy in Wimbledon seemed to have that kind of self belief. That perhaps was the difference between winning and losing.

सिर्फ खेलनेका नहीं: The Business of IPL

“It is pathetic – this spot fixing. They get so much money, and still fix”, cried my friend Swami, as we were having our weekend coffee. My broker friend Jigneshbhai was, as always, watching Swami and listening.

After a while, Jigneshbhai asked nonchalantly, “Who are you talking about?” As always, this irked Swami even more.

“Of course, those players in IPL. They get money to play cricket and those players are not playing cricket.”

“Well, don’t worry about it, the players don’t matter much”, replied Jigneshbhai.

Swami looked a bit lost and asked, “What do you mean?”

“Well, some of them do, probably for some time, but then beyond a point, even they don’t. New star players are created all the time”, Jigneshbhai asserted.

Swami’s lost look changed into a bit of amusement. “In cricket, if the players don’t matter, who does?” he mocked.

Jigneshbhai sipped his cup of coffee, and smiled. He looked at Swami and grinned.

“In cricket, the players matter, but in the business of IPL, only you do.”

“Me?” shouted Swami, so loudly that those on the next table glared at us. I signalled to Swami to tone down a bit. In a hushed voice, he repeated “me?”

Crowd-during-matchJigneshbhai, again nonchalantly replied, “Yes, only you matter. You – the cricket fan, the viewer and You – the consumer.”

This stumped me a bit too, and both Swami and I looked at Jigneshbhai with anticipation. But there was no further explanation. Finally, when we realized that he was not going to speak further, we requested him to explain himself. That got him started.

“Well, if you analyze the business of IPL, all the revenue is based on two fundamental premises; first is that the Indian viewer will watch a 3-hour capsule of cricketainment, and second is that advertisers would pay good money to reach the Indian consumer. And those premises are well proven and sound. That’s why you are so important.”

Swami and I looked at each other trying to check if the other got it. My broker friend realized that his explanation was not enough. He took a piece of paper and drew few boxes on it. He started writing on the boxes, and started drawing arrows connecting those boxes as he spoke.

“In the IPL ecosystem, first there is BCCI. They get money for basically selling rights to franchisees and broadcasters, as they own cricket in India.”

He pointed to the second box and continued, “Then there are the franchisees i.e. the team owners, who pay license fees to BCCI and pay salaries to the players. They make their money from their revenue share of title sponsor rights and broadcasting rights that the BCCI pays each of them, as well as individual team’s ticket sales, player/team sponsorships and merchandising which keep increasing every year. Got it so far?”

He looked up at us. We looked at each other and nodded – though both of us were not quite sure we had got it, and what he was getting to. Meanwhile, he continued.

“Then there is the broadcaster Sony who pays BCCI for rights to broadcast, and makes money by selling advertisements during the matches.”

“And finally the sponsors like DLF and Pepsi who pay BCCI for title rights, and advertisers who pay the broadcaster to reach the audience. Got it?”

Both Swami and I were rubbing our eyes trying to understand what Jigneshbhai was saying. Jigneshbhai looked at his diagram on the tissue paper at the cafe, and looked up at us.

Swami peeped into the diagram and asked, “Where are the players?”

Jigneshbhai looked up at us and smiled. “Well they don’t figure in the business of IPL. They get their salaries, they are supposed to play, make the games interesting and hopefully win.”

Then he turned back to his boxes in the diagram. “Hopefully what the players do on the field, and what rest of the ecosystem does off it makes it interesting enough to get you to watch the matches. It sustains the virtuous cycle of advertisers, broadcasters, BCCI and franchisees all making money. If you stop watching, this cycle ends. That’s why you are so important.”

Swami and I looked at each other in astonishment at Jigneshbhai’s explanation. We also felt an inner glow of pride on being told that we were so important for the IPL business. But that pride quickly melted when Jigneshbhai continued.

“The good thing for the IPL business and the problem for the game of cricket is that, irrespective of whatever happens, the fan still turns up and watches the matches. Honestly, they know that they can bank on you.”

He continued, albeit with a tone of resignation.

052612_21“So many controversies have happened in the past 5 years. Most of them bad for the game, many of them bad for the business.”

“All that they do every time is ‘get the bad eggs out’, so that the game continues. You still turn up in increasing numbers, and ‘business continuity’ is maintained.”

“What else does a business need to do if its customers turn up, come what may?”

As he explained this, his mood turned reflective. I realised that despite the business of IPL, as a cricket fan he was sad.

Swami and I looked at each other, wondering whether it was good or bad that Jigneshbhai had explained this to us. It seemed quite plausible that nothing much will come out of this spot fixing except the players caught being banned. How can a business punish itself? Unless, of course, the customers turn away. Which looked unlikely.

We were in a slightly pensive mood when the wealthy man in the sprawling bungalow dropped in. As usual, he was listening to our conversation for a while.

With a twinkle in his eye, he reminded us that today’s match begins in half an hour.

As we were leaving, he explained “It’s not about only the game anymore. सिर्फ देखने खेलनेका नहीं, get up and jumpak thumpak.”

Entertaining Losers No More: Champions ‘Gangnam’ style!

I sometimes feel that the West Indies is every non-West Indian cricket fan’s favorite team after their own country.

If one were to ask cricket fans from different age groups and eras from across the world who their favorite side is (or, maybe, was!) after their own nation, I would not be surprised if West Indies figured in that list a large number of times.

At least they used to be – till perhaps a few years back.

Most cricket fans born before 1980 would always remember the domination that the West Indies had over cricket till the early 80’s. They held sway for close to a better part of the 15 years from 1970 or so. And most cricket fans loved their style of cricket. Few champion sides have this combination of both superlative performance and love from fans.

When Australia dominated world cricket from the late 90’s and most part of the last decade, while most fans were in awe of their abilities, hardly anyone liked it when Australia won.  Though every one respected the side and felt that the Australians were as close to invincibility in early 2000’s as the West Indies of the 70’s, even in neutral matches fans across the world hardly cheered wholeheartedly when Australia won.

But it was almost natural for fans, irrespective of which side they supported, and difficult even for the tough nosed critics to not appreciate the magic that Lloyd, Richards, Greenidge and Haynes, combined with Roberts, Holding, Marshall and Garner created on the cricket field.

When they won match after match, cricket fans around the world cheered. While the side’s performance tapered from the late 80’s into the early 90’s with a sole Lara or an occasional Ambrose-Walsh to cheer for, fans still hoped that the West Indies would win.

It is a bit tough to isolate what it is about the West Indian brand of cricket and, perhaps, life – but it has generally been a loved side.

That was probably the reason why almost everyone felt good when the West Indies finally won something significant –  the T20 World Cup – after so many years. Even the Sri Lankan fans who probably went into a state of shock on seeing their side lose, could not help but get entertained by the wild victory celebrations and display of joy. Imagine if a Pakistan would have celebrated like that in Mumbai after a final, or Australia beating England at the Lord’s. It would have been tough for the home crowd to appreciate.

But the emotion that West Indies provoked after the victory was that of unbridled joy. Perhaps the reason why even the home crowd despite its disappointment eventually came around to applaud them.

Well despite the celebrations, this is hardly likely to be the return of the might of the West Indies of the yesteryear. Be that as it may. For the moment, one can definitely say that in T20 at the very least, the West Indies are no more entertaining losers. They are very much the Champions who arrived out of nowhere – ‘Gangnam style’!

Hall of Shame: It really was not about the bike

Ben Johnson would seem a like a small time cheat compared to Lance Armstrong.

If the reasons due to which Armstrong has been stripped of his 7 titles and perhaps Olympic Medal too are true (more likely than not), then Ben Johnson could actually be forgiven for letting down athletic fans over 20 years back for a few acts of misjudgment, compared to Lance Armstrong who would seem like a ringleader of fraud and cheaters in sport.

lance-armstrong-tour-de-france-2009Lance Armstrong’s achievements in cycling were comparable only to what Federer has achieved in tennis or Tendulkar has achieved in cricket. Not only that, he was an emotional icon beyond sport for most of his fans, purely because of the fact that his super human achievements came after he had conquered cancer. Most of his fans would probably be in denial unable to accept that, after all, he was, at best, a superficially pumped performer, and at worst, a thriving store and supplier of performance enhancing drugs to world-class cyclists.

There is something god-like that we attribute to sporting heroes who not only achieve supreme excellence in their field, but do so in the face of personal tragedy. That in itself becomes reason enough to provide them a status that is beyond mere mortals or even normally outstanding sports persons.

For those not familiar with cycling, Lance Armstrong had that kind of standing. The morally high pedestal that Armstrong was put on is likely to ensure that he will fall that much harder. Now not only his cycling feats in the face of extreme adversity will be questioned, but I heard a true-blue fan so shattered yesterday that he was questioning whether Armstrong really had cancer. That would be stretching things too far, but that is what happens when real life heroes of this stature turn out to be just another greedy cheat trying to make it big in the big business of sports, and who was smart enough not to be caught so far.

In some way, Armstrong’s personal fight against cancer cannot be taken away from him. And his cancer foundation has done a lot of good for cancer patients purely due to the money it collected. But all of it was based on the premise that Lance Armstrong was the God of Cycling who not only can win 7 titles but can do so after having beaten cancer. And that represented hope to a cancer patient. I would suspect that not only cycling fans but also some of those patients will feel moral outrage of some kind.

The Hall of Fame that Lance Armstrong enjoyed is likely to become a Hall of Shame in equal and opposite measure. After all, it really was not just about the bike.

Citius, Altius, Fortius: Understanding the Drivers of Olympic Glory

My earliest memories of the Olympics are that of Carl Lewis running away with 4 Golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. And then attempting the same in the 1988 Seoul Games – till being stunned by Ben Johnson in the 100 m finals. Eventually, after 3 days, he got that too – due to, perhaps, the most high-profile dope in history being discovered.

Another memory that always used to come to mind is the way Americans and Russians dominated most of the medal tallies. And then you had an occasional Great Britain and Germany, and you had some from Japan and Australia.

The usual explanations for the medal tallies of these countries were ‘these are all rich countries and they have the money’! Or they have culture of sports. Americans have a university system that has sports at the center of it. Or Russians train their gymnasts from the age of 4 in a regimented environment. Or Australia has a sporting society and culture.

And then China came around with their stupendous tally in the 2004 and 2008 games. And then we said ‘China has the population and the money. And they have now built a sporting culture.’ Well maybe yes, may be not.

So what are the drivers of Olympic success by a country? I wish there were simple answers like ‘do this and this will happen’. Unfortunately, there are not. But there definitely are some factors that indicate a method to the madness. There is no doubt, that there are a few drivers of medal tally success at the Olympics, at a country level.

The intuitive drivers are GDP (richness) and Population (number of people). The argument being that those with a high GDP and a high enough population to direct some money towards have a good chance of creating champions.

Rank Nation and Population Gold Silver Bronze Total
1  China (CHN) 1,336 Mn 51 21 28 100
2  United States (USA) 313 Mn 36 38 36 110
3  Russia (RUS) 139 Mn 23 21 29 73
4  Great Britain (GBR) 63 Mn 19 13 15 47
5  Germany (GER) 82 Mn 16 10 15 41
6  Australia (AUS) 22 Mn 14 15 17 46
7  South Korea (KOR) 49 Mn 13 10 8 31
8  Japan (JPN) 127 Mn 9 6 10 25
9  Italy (ITA) 62 Mn 8 9 10 27
10  France (FRA) 66 Mn 7 16 18 41
Rank Country GDP (purchasing power parity) (Billion $)
1 United States 14,660
2 China 10,090
3 Japan 4,310
4 India 4,060
5 Germany 2,940
6 Russia 2,223
7 United Kingdom 2,173
8 Brazil 2,172
9 France 2,145
10 Italy 1,774

While the above tables indicate that there is some correlation between GDP, Population and the Medals Tally, they are not strictly linear. It is not as if with increasing GDP or population, your tally will increase.

Moreover, there are some very large exceptions from this list, like India, Indonesia and Brazil with seriously large populations and economies who do not figure in the medals list. In fact, they are way down with hardly any medals to speak of.

Similarly, there are some major exceptions on the other side too. A small economy like Kenya is just below the top 10, and with population less than Beijing or Delhi alone, Australia is a serious outlier based on population and GDP alone, and must be doing something right to get into the top 10.

So all in all, ‘Richness’ and ‘Populousness’ are not drivers in the sense of being determinants – but definitely good starting points. We can, at best, be sure that a country with a small economy and a small population hardly stands a chance of being in that list.

If one does a more in-depth analysis of where do the medal tallies come from, some other factors come to light.

If one looks at the breakup of the medals won by China in 2008, 62 of their 100 medals (38 out of 51 Golds) have come from 6 disciplines (they won medals in 22). And these 6 disciplines include neither athletics nor swimming which has a high number of medals on offer.

Medals by sport
Sport Gold medal icon.svg Silver medal icon.svg Bronze medal icon.svg Total
Gymnastics 11 2 5 18
Weightlifting 8 1 0 9
Diving 7 1 3 11
Shooting 5 2 1 8
Table tennis 4 2 2 8
Badminton 3 2 3 8

So China did not decide one fine day – great, we have people and we have money, now let’s create some athletes and swimmers to beat the Americans!

If one looks at a similar breakup of medals won by the USA, a similar picture emerges. These five disciplines account for 77 out of the 110 medals won by the US in 2008.

Medals by sport
Sport Gold medal icon.svg Silver medal icon.svg Bronze medal icon.svg Total
Swimming 12 9 10 31
Track and field 8 9 7 24
Gymnastics Artistic 2 6 2 10
Fencing 1 3 2 6
Shooting 2 2 2 6

This success is due to a clear focus on specific disciplines. These, generally, are the ones a nation has a historical or cultural predisposition towards.

This is substantiated by other examples like the former USSR (and later its splinters) and the East European nations consistently dominating sports like Weight-Lifting. Or even nations with relatively smaller medal tallies focusing on their strengths – like Kenya on Long Distance running, or even Malaysia on badminton, or even India in the past on hockey.

Majority of all track and field games are won by athletes with Afro-American descent. Athletes from mainland Africa have dominated long distance running for decades. Swimming continues to be a strong area for European-descent sports persons. Indoor games are a major strength for Asian athletes. Australia has built a strong outdoor sporting culture.

One realises that once one has a potent combination of a decent population and reasonable GDP, how successful one is at the games is also driven by two other factors. These factors seems to be firstly, your population pool which gives a country a natural edge as well as cultural and systemic strengths in a some sports, and secondly, how well you make the structure of the Olympic games and medals on offer in various events itself work to your advantage by focus. Spotting talent and putting money behind them, as well as training and hard work are a given, but that alone will not lead to anything unless it is focused on areas that one has inherent advantages in and one is smart in using them.

Though the Olympics motto says that participating is more important than winning, the truth of the matter is that the Olympics glory is about sporting excellence, so anything less than excellence will not fetch medals. Each medal winner has to be among the best 3 in the world for that event, and that is not easy. So just sending your best athlete in a discipline is probably not the right approach. But having a conscious strategy of focus on disciplines where you have natural advantage, and then channeling your resources to create champions in that event at a world level may yield long term results. Once you are among the best in a field, generally commercial success follows – leading to a spiral effect for that discipline and further compounding the benefits to a nation.

For countries to convert their hope into reality and hence, figure in the medals tally, a combination of a pool of talent, money and focus based on inherent strengths are prerequisites. In India, we can be optimistic that we have no dearth of the first one.  And, hopeful that the second one has just started coming into sports other than cricket.  Unless these two and the third come together, we are not being realistic.

Once upon a time in Wimbledon, there lived a king called Roger!

Wimbledon is a bit like Disneyland – it is a world of make-believe.

Everything about it is far from reality, but once you are taken by the trance, there is no coming back. The magic that the only major still played on green lawns casts – with its white dresses for ‘gentlemen and ladies’, the strawberries and cream, the royalty, the Dukes and Duchesses,  the formal attire of the audience, the ball boys and girls in their greens (now blues), the ‘quiet please, thank you’ takes you into a world of its own. Like Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, you know it is not quite real, but like in Disneyland, you still best enjoy it when you drown yourself in the shows and the parades that transport you into a different world of its own. It is difficult to pin-point what exactly it is about Wimbledon, but it has been doing this to tennis players and fans across the world for over a hundred years now.

And if anything completes this fairy tale of modern times better in today’s era, it is the sublime grace and majesty of Roger Federer in full flow. Like many tennis fans across the world, I witnessed a bit of that magic over the past couple of games at Wimbledon. More so in the semifinal against Djokovic, but partially also in the finals against Murray, Federer gave us glimpses of the sheer genius and astonishing brilliance that he was worshipped for, and which, even at the age of 30, he is still capable of.

fedex-wimbledon-2012In all honesty, till the end of the second set in the finals, we were searching for that flash of genius from Federer. His game till that point reminded me a bit of the knock in the 2011 Cricket World Cup semifinals that Sachin Tendulkar played against Pakistan – an old maestro who knew the importance of the occasion and wanted to give his best, but, in the face of an inspired opponent, was just about surviving and seeing things through – almost lucky to still be in the game. I don’t know what it is about our sporting idols that we expect, that even a slight drop in their invincibility makes us disappointed. But for most of the semifinal and, perhaps, from the end of the second set in the finals, Federer was operating in ‘the zone’, coming up with shots and serves, almost at will and at the right time, that left the audience spellbound and brought back memories of the glorious genius of Federer that we had experienced in the past.

With 16 grand slams in his kitty even before the one he added at Wimbledon this year, Federer was already assured of a place among the all time greats to have played the game. But now, the arguments and discussions about whether he is, indeed, the greatest will probably start all over again. Even when he was at the peak of his game a few years back, there used to be a story of an American and an Australian fan arguing whether Pete Sampras or Rod Laver were the greatest of all time. And how a Swiss gentleman barged into their argument, and said that the greatest is still playing the game and his name is Roger. At that time it was still a prediction, but by the time Federer is done, it is possible that there will be no more discussions – it may well be a foregone conclusion. Who knows what else is in store?

And a few years from now, tennis folklore will have stories of his magic. And those stories will start like this: Once upon a time in Wimbledon, there lived a king called Roger!

Lights, Camera and Bang: Cricketainment?

Before the first ball is bowled in every IPL match, the umpire should probably stop saying “Play” and start saying “Lights? Camera? Go Bang!” May be have a countdown as the bowler runs in to bowl.

This could be one of the many innovations that could come into cricket over time with the IPL. One of the commentators suggested sixers are not enough, we should start introducing eighters specifically for the IPL. Among the administrators, someone said that one of the innovations this year was that curators have been instructed to create pitches where anyone should be able to score 160, because ‘the crowd wants to see fours and sixes’. Another innovation has got to do with having celebrities play at the end of the match or something like that – to give the crowd a flavour of celebrity cricket.

Fours years back when the IPL started, the public position was ‘it is good for Indian cricket and will lead to local talent being given a platform to perform.’ Of course, no one who knew anything about the business of TV and cricket believed them even then. Because there were better platforms for local talent already in the form of Ranji Trophy and other domestic tournaments. What was missing was nobody watched them, so no money could be made out of them.

cricketainmentipl5So now you had a format which could easily enter living rooms (and bedrooms – if you have a TV there!). And by getting some of the richest people in India have a stake in its success, the recipe for a potent mix of cricket, entertainment and business was already cooked. So four years later, there is no pretence anymore that this is not about cricket, but about ‘cricketainment’.

Now don’t get me wrong. Commerce is good for cricket, it has been good for sport, in general. Youngsters can now think of making a serious living out of only cricket – even if they never ever play for India, or for any country for that matter. In fact, a better living perhaps. And that can only be good for every one involved – at least from the point of view of making a living.

But the unpretentious mix of business, cricket and entertainment which seems to be a given in this year’s IPL seems to have something uniquely crass and ugly about it. This potpourri package is also being sold on a platter to cricket fans, current and potential, as ‘family outing or entertainment’. Perhaps someone advised them that ‘they need to revive the brand and broad base the market’. Perhaps they are right, cricket is only a pretext.

What is really happening is to create content that gets audiences so that advertisers pay for the ads. Like the ‘Financetainment’ on business channels or the ‘Newstainment’ on news channels. So now with ‘Cricketainment’ you are, more or less, doing the same. With the players and teams being the main cast, and the multiplier effect of coaches, commentators, cheer leaders, experts, and all kinds of people and tools in the support cast – in multiple languages – it is about creating something of interest, and trying to reach an audience that apparently is easy to get hooked on to cricket.

Whether that sells well enough, time will tell. Whether it will survive, no one knows – because it is a business, and if it does not make profits, no one will continue ‘for the love of the game or the nation.’

cricketainment2So someone figured, why call it cricket? Let’s call it cricketainment.

Warren Buffett once said “We believe that according the name ‘investors’ to institutions that trade actively is like calling someone who repeatedly engages in one-night stands a ‘romantic.'” Calling IPL ‘cricket’ is, probably, something like that. ‘Cricketainment’ is a better name.

The problem is every one else thinks it is cricket.

May be from next year, they should have a disclaimer like the finance channels, serials and other programs.

“This is an entertainment program based on cricket. Any similarities with the original game of cricket and its niceties, living or dead, are purely coincidental.”

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