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South Africa has picked its new T20 league over sealing a spot in the 2023 ODI World Cup. Things just got real

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Good Evening [%first_name |Dear Reader%],

Exactly 280 days ago, The Ken published the first edition of Moneyball, a first-of-its-kind weekly newsletter on the business of sport in India. It was a shot in the dark, since sports business is a subject that has never quite received the kind of in-depth coverage it deserves in India.

But over the last 39 editions, I’ve been thrilled with the kind of response I received from readers like you. Whether it was on private equity in sport, cricket broadcast rights, the renaissance of Formula One, the business of chess, or the murky world of online betting. I’m super chuffed that there is an audience in India for the continuously expanding and extremely action-packed world of sports business.

Which is why I’m rather sad to be writing this—today’s edition, the 40th (wow!), will be the last one of Moneyball. This is happening because I’m moving on from The Ken. So, thank you once again, dear reader, for bearing with me for the last nine months. I can honestly say it’s been an amazing ride.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what’s in store for you as a subscriber of The Ken’s newsletter bundle, buckle up and watch this space. We have a couple of very exciting new additions lined up for you. And you’ll be hearing about them very soon.

Right. Let’s get into the final edition of Moneyball.

I thought I’d write about something that’s rather close to my heart—one-day internationals (ODIs). And a particular event earlier this week that threatens to put the final nail in the coffin of this format of cricket.

Is this the end of bilateral ODI cricket series?

One of my fondest memories from childhood is going to the Sharjah Cricket Stadium to watch the triangular ODI series that used to be organised there in the nineties. (Yes, I’m a Gulf kid.) The tournaments, featuring three international teams, used to last a couple of weeks, with matches played every other day. And they were immense fun!

I don’t like to brag about this—well, actually I do—but I was lucky enough to witness Sachin Tendulkar’s outstanding 134 against Australia in the final of the 1997-98 Coca-Cola Cup (it was also his birthday!). People say that the “desert storm” innings in the match prior to that, in which Tendulkar smashed 143, was better but I beg to differ 😛.

I’ve also watched spectacular innings by Sourav Ganguly and Hansie Cronje, and a great spell by Waqar Younis. If you ask me which are the most memorable cricket matches I’ve watched, whether in-stadium or on television, I’d probably only list ODIs and a few Test matches. No T20s. Yes, call me a nostalgist all you want.

The Sharjah Cricket Stadium (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Which is why I could only react with a resigned sigh when it was announced earlier this week that South Africa has withdrawn from the three-match ODI series it was supposed to play in Australia in January 2023. Because the dates are clashing with the South African cricket board’s new franchise T20 league. If you’re rolling your eyes while reading this, I feel you.

South Africa is effectively forfeiting the series, which is astounding on the face of it because it makes its task to qualify for the 2023 ODI World Cup quite difficult. South Africa is currently languishing in 11th place in the World Cup Super League, a qualification tournament for the quadrennial showpiece event. Only the top eight teams as of May 2023 will get a direct entry to the World Cup, while the rest have to participate in a qualifier tournament for the remaining two spots.

Here’s what Cricket South Africa chief executive Pholetsi Moseki said in a media release:

“CSA has agreed that ICC award Australia the competition points. While we are saddened at losing the crucial points, we are confident that our in-form Proteas team will garner the requisite points through the remaining games to secure automatic qualification to the showpiece event in India next year.

As difficult as this decision has been for CSA, the long-term sustainability of our new T20 League is reliant on having all our domestic players available for this exciting new addition to the CSA calendar.”

CSA is in this position because, quite simply, it’s not as powerful and influential as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). In fact, the South African board is in rather dire straits. Its cash reserves as per its 2020-21 annual report were US$32.3 million, down from US$740 million in 2017, according to Cricbuzz. The BCCI, meanwhile, just had a payday of over US$6 billion after auctioning the media rights for the Indian Premier League (IPL), its blockbuster franchise T20 league.

CSA dreams of making its new T20 league the second-most popular one after the IPL. And this is its third attempt at cracking the franchise T20 formula in the last decade. CSA wants to get it right this time—it has planned for the new league to break even in four years and turn profitable from the fifth year, according to documents seen by ESPNcricinfo.

Over ten years, it has estimated costs at USD 56 million and revenue at USD 119 million, which will leave the board with a profit of USD 63 million, which is a lot more money than it makes from bilateral cricket. And that's only the benefit to CSA. From its first year, the league will pay players bumper salaries in US dollars, which dwarf the Rand amounts they earn from domestic franchises and even international cricket at home.

Currently, South Africa relies on home series against India and its hundreds of millions of television viewers to make money. The new league is being seen as a way to broaden its revenue streams. And for that, at the very least, it needs its own players to take part in the new league.

This is why South Africa is willing to risk not qualifying for the World Cup. Playing in the tournament would earn the board about US$2 million at most. Yes, of course, you can’t buy the prestige that comes with winning a World Cup. But whether fans and nostalgists like me like it or not, cricket is about profit, not patriotism, as Telford Vice aptly put it in his column on Cricbuzz. And in CSA’s case, it’s also about survival.

So, what does this mean? What are the possible repercussions?

Well, if you go by what cricket writers are saying, it’s another nail in the coffin for ODIs. More specifically, bilateral ODI series. While the 50-over World Cup is unlikely to vanish anytime soon, the same can’t be said about meaningless bilateral ODI series that are organised during each tour.

Source: Ben Sutherland/Flickr/Creative Commons

They’re already an endangered species, especially those with five matches or more. Australia’s recent five-match ODI series in Sri Lanka was the first of that length since just before the 2019 World Cup. In comparison, between the 2015 World Cup and 2019 World Cup, there were 42 five-match bilateral ODI series.

ESPNcricinfo’s Osman Samiuddin has written a piece on how ODIs are a dying format. It was a painful read for me, but he made some irrefutable points.

He pointed out how Pakistan and West Indies played an ODI series in Multan in June, when daytime temperatures were above 40°C; cricket in Pakistan is usually reserved for the winter. And how England took part in a bilateral ODI series that same month against the Netherlands, in between the second and third Tests against New Zealand.

Those series only took place because they were part of the World Cup Super League, and automatic qualification for the showpiece event was on the line. England, the 2019 World Cup champions, hadn’t played an ODI since July 2021 before that series in the Netherlands.

Samiuddin wondered what might happen to the humble ODI in the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) next Future Tour Programme (FTP) scheduling cycle for 2023-27.

Could it go the way of the ODI series between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which was supposed to take place in July but was scrapped because nobody knows why it was there in the first place? It wasn't part of the Super League. It was just there. Word is that it was scrapped so that the Lanka Premier League (LPL) could be squeezed in.

It’s clear that franchise T20 leagues are the future of cricket. Former India cricketer and head coach Ravi Shastri recently spoke about how he foresees cricket going in the direction of football, where domestic leagues fill up the calendar and, then, there’s a T20 World Cup every two years. And perhaps an ODI World Cup every four years (for nostalgists like me).

T20 leagues are already filling up the cricketing calendar, and there have been a number of instances where they’ve clashed with international cricket. Here’s how the calendar looks currently:

As you can see, there’s very little space left to play international cricket without clashing with any of the T20 leagues. Australian and English cricketers often skip their respective T20 leagues because they’re prioritising an upcoming international series, mostly Test cricket (Indian cricketers aren’t given that choice at all). But that will soon change.

Nick Hockley, Cricket Australia's CEO, said exactly this in a podcast last week: that in the new FTP they will look to keep their white-ball international schedule clear after the New Year's Test in Sydney, so their best players can take part in the BBL. The ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) would be fools to not do the same.

Test cricket is safe for now, with the World Test Championship (WTC) scheduled at least till 2029. Which means that bilateral series with a few Tests will continue at least for the next seven years. But Test matches hardly earn any revenue, so there are bound to be a few T20 Internationals sprinkled here and there during the tours.

Uday Shankar, former Star India chairman, minced no words while making this point in a 2017 interview with The Indian Express.

“The economics do not drive the game. The popularity of the game drives the economics. Except for the summer Tests in England and a few in Australia, have you seen a full stadium? In today’s world, who do you expect to be available on TV or in the stadium to watch a match that goes on for five days? Our own data suggests, whether it’s T20, ODI or Test match, people spend one hour watching it. This is BARC data. Economics of Test cricket doesn’t work.”

“The fans have spoken that they love the T20 format. It’s easy to misunderstand a broadcaster’s perspective because we seem to be the guys who are in it for the money, which is true. But you make money only when the fans like something.. This whole model of going and buying ever-more expensive cricket rights is not sustainable. Consumption of sports here is lowest in world. Until that changes, business of sports is going to be tough.”

The economics of cricket has spoken, indeed. As Sriram Veera wrote in the above piece, “the end of bilateral cricket series, especially in ODIs, is here.”

It’s rather ironic that the world of cricket has been discussing the imminent death of ODIs in the same week that Indian fans celebrated the 20th anniversary of one of its cricket team’s most famous ODI wins. Yes, I’m talking about the 2002 Natwest Series final. That match sealed the names of Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif in Indian cricket folklore, while pictures of Sourav Ganguly’s bare chest as he twirled his jersey up in the air were splashed in newspapers across the globe.

Interestingly, the Natwest Series was a triangular series featuring England, India, and Sri Lanka. Triangular series, which I thoroughly enjoyed because you at least have a place in the final to play for, is a format that has already died. I think the last such tournament was the Nidahas Trophy in 2018, which featured Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh.

Are bilateral ODI series next?

I don’t want to answer that question. But I do wonder how many more matches like the Natwest final will we have to reminisce about 20 years down the line.

Quick singles

🏏🌏🏆 Indian broadcasters have complained to the ICC about the lack of transparency in its upcoming media rights auction process. Broadcasters Disney Star, Sony Pictures Networks India, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, and Viacom18 are concerned about the use of sealed envelopes in the bidding process rather than having an e-auction, which is how the BCCI did it with the IPL. They are also not happy with the three-week gap between the bid submission and the result declaration; a lack of clarity on the multiplier formula for four-year rights versus eight-year rights; and the demand for a 5% upfront deposit. [The Economic Times]

🏃🧎🇮🇳 Ultimate Kho Kho, India’s newest franchise-based sports league, will roll out in Pune from 14 August to 4 September. There will be six franchises in the inaugural edition (franchise owners in brackets): Chennai Quick Guns (KLO Sports), Gujarat Giants (Adani Sportsline), Mumbai Khiladis (Badshah and Punit Balan), Odisha Juggernauts (Government of Odisha), Rajasthan Warriors (Capri Global), and Telugu Yoddhas (GMR Sports). [FirstPost]

⛳️🇺🇸🇸🇦 The United States’ Department of Justice is investigating whether golf’s PGA Tour engaged in anti-competitive behaviour against its new rival LIV Golf. The PGA Tour has suspended all players who chose to sign up with LIV Golf, which is financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. The Department of Justice has deemed the suspension as anti-competitive. LIV Golf, which managed to sign up golfers like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, and Sergio Garcia, has been criticised as being another example of sportswashing. [Wall Street Journal]

That’s all from this final edition of Moneyball. It’s been great bringing this newsletter to you over the last nine months. You can reach out to me at [email protected] till 20 July or say hello on Twitter.

Take care. And see you soon.

Best,
Jaideep

This newsletter has been discontinued. But you can read The Stack which includes our newsletters around cleantech, fintech, personal finance and e-commerce in India!