Sport breeds competition. Where there seems none to be had, it will be found anyway. As the sports industry and attendant media interest have grown, this phenomenon has only intensified. There is always another argument: the best player in the game, the greatest team of all time, or, indeed, the world’s most marketable athlete.
The Olympics and the Fifa World Cup are major sporting happenings on such a scale that a new category has been created for them – that of the ‘mega-event’. There is no consensus on which is the bigger of the two, the distinction usually made being that the latter is the biggest ‘single-sport’ event. Yet there is even less agreement about what comes next, other than daylight.
“Across all the years when I’ve been reading articles, and press releases and the like from rights holders,” says Kevin Alavy, managing director of sports business data consultant Futures Sport + Entertainment, “I’ve probably seen at least ten, if not more, rights holders claim that their sporting event is the third most-watched sporting event in the world. They can’t all be right.”
2015 sees the quadrennial coming together of three global events for which many have often claimed the third spot on the podium: the World Athletics Championships, the Rugby World Cup and the Cricket World Cup. If you disregard the annual juggernauts – the National Football League’s (NFL) Super Bowl, the Uefa Champions League, tennis’ Grand Slams, golf’s majors, the Tour de France – and the major non-global events like the Uefa European Championship, the Ryder Cup, the Copa America, the Asian Games, Pan American Games and European Games, their case becomes easier to make.
All three events are relatively youthful, with the first Cricket World Cup played in 1975, the first World Athletics Championships following in 1983 and the first Rugby World Cup not arriving until 1987. All three were also introduced into sports with long-established competitive landscapes. In athletics, Olympic gold remains the ultimate achievement. Cricket and rugby share a touring culture which has birthed other traditions, such as the Ashes Test series or British and Irish Lions tours, as well as a string of bitter international rivalries.
Nevertheless, the trio are now very much recognised as the main showcase for their sports, and they face pivotal years in 2015.
First up is the Cricket World Cup, beginning this weekend in Australia and New Zealand and running until the final in Melbourne on 29th March.
“It’s something that we embrace internally and that we obviously believe in, simply based on broadcast reach – as in how far and wide cricket is broadcast, the number of viewers and the types of revenues that are paid by commercial partners,” says International Cricket Council (ICC) general manager, commercial, Campbell Jamieson, who can point in particular to enormous TV audience figures from the Asian subcontinent to further his case.
“The numbers of spectators in a venue very much depends on the size of the facilities that you have,” he adds. “You cannot expect the sorts of numbers that you can fit into Twickenham at Lord’s as its a significantly bigger venue than Lord’s. That’s just the reality. We don’t have the venues big enough compared with other codes such as football and rugby to compete on that side. Overall, in other aspects, we certainly strongly believe that we’re behind the Olympics and football but we’re third in line in relation to the size of our event.”
The International Cricket Council (ICC) keeps its commercial operations in-house and its global sponsorship platform sees partners attached to its entire suite of events. These deals are agreed on an eight-year basis – with the current cycle set to end after this year’s final in Melbourne – and this means there is already some certainty about income from this year’s one-day international showpiece.
“We have our complete commercial programme in place so we’re fully exhausted on all our commercial inventory for the event,” says Jamieson. “From a commercial and revenue-generating perspective, we have completely achieved what we set out to achieve.”
The ICC’s revenues from the last eight years – spread between its commercial and licensing deals and its global media rights deal with Indian broadcaster ESPN Star Sports, now Star – are believed to have been around the US$1.5 billion mark. Last year it passed a divisive set of governance reforms and firmed up its events calendar, with the aim of giving greater confidence to prospective partners and bringing income between this year and 2023 up to US$2.5 billion.
That work has already started – Star renewed its deal in October for a reported US$1.98 billion – and a strong showing for the Cricket World Cup would be a timely boost. “It’s the highest revenue-generating event that we stage by a long way,” confirms Jamieson, “and it’s vitally important for the future sponsorship deals that will come up over the next eight years.”
The financial significance of the Indian market to world cricket scarcely needs underlining but for the ICC, that doesn’t manifest itself in the manner that might be expected. “Most of our income doesn’t actually come out of India,” explains Jamieson. “Most of our sponsorship agreements are with entities that aren’t based in India. In the case of PepsiCo, it’s based with their head office in New York, in the case of Hyundai and LG it’s out of Korea, Moneygram out of the USA, in the case of Emirates it’s out of Dubai – so most of the income is not being sourced out of India. But, yes, a lot of it is from entities throughout the world that have a focus on the Indian territory.”
The activities of ICC sponsors are also targeted at markets with large south Asian expat and emigrant communities, something Jamieson credits with growing the sport in regions like the Middle East. In some cases, these companies are making a direct contribution to how this year’s tournament will be watched, with the likes of Moneygram paying for broadcast sponsorship that effectively bankrolls rights purchases in Europe and South America.
With Star responsible for selling on rights in individual markets the ICC’s ability to micro-manage the broadcast strategy for the tournament is limited. However, there are “various controls and obligations” by which the governing body protects its aims at the contract stage, including the protection of live coverage in around a dozen key territories and the number of languages broadcast – 24 for last year’s World Twenty20.
"From a commercial and revenue-generating perspective, we have completely achieved what we set out to achieve."
On the ground, the relationship with the local organising committee is defined in fairly clear terms. “There is a host agreement in place with Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket,” says Jamieson. “They have a local organising committee and they do all the logistical on-ground arrangements, etc, and they implement the ticketing and the hospitality.”
Alongside technical partners Hublot and SAP, and new global partner MRF, there are a wide range of sponsors and suppliers with local rights to the event, several of them restricted to either Australia or New Zealand. Both countries are usually marooned by their time zones for major events but Australia, in particular, is experiencing a cricketing renaissance after successful home Test series against England and India and with its domestic T20 Big Bash League flourishing. A million ticket sales is the target, with Australia home to venues like the 100,000-seater Melbourne Cricket Ground.
“When you have a World Cup event or an ICC event in those territories, it provides that opportunity to showcase those events and to give them profile,” says Jamieson. “It’s really difficult to get that profile when they’re coming at three in the morning. So it does provide that opportunity, and we need to make certain that we take that opportunity to give the game its profile.”
The Cricket World Cup reached its biggest ever size in 2011 when it grew to 14 teams, taking on a format it will retain this year. In 2019 in England, however, the competition is being cut to ten teams, albeit arranged in a round-robin first round which will guarantee a large number of games for the ICC’s broadcast partners.
The move has not been universally well-received, with opponents critical of the unwieldy layout – already perceived as a long-term Cricket World Cup weakness – and the decision to freeze developing nations out of the main tournament at a time when the sport ought to be expanding. Jamieson counters these arguments by suggesting that qualification will be opened up to more teams at the previous stage and that the ICC World Cup Qualifier, scheduled to take place in the summer of 2018 with at least two Test-playing nations involved, will become a grander occasion as a result.
As far as the ICC’s partners are concerned, these format changes will only be concerning if they do not deliver to the bottom line. ICC sponsors are attached to the full suite of global events, including the short-form ICC World Twenty20 – which becomes a quadrennial event from 2016 and heads to Australia and New Zealand in 2020 – and the more compact secondary 50-over tournament, the ICC Champions Trophy.
“What we offer is quite unique,” says Jamieson. “The World Twenty20 is a very strong event. It’s grown over the last eight years. The Champions Trophy remains a strong event. We’re quite fortunate that we’re able to offer three high-performing events over a four-year cycle – with the World Cup being the highest but the other two are exceptionally strong from a commercial perspective.”
With its expansion to 16 teams in 2014, albeit in a two-part structure, the ICC World Twenty20 now reflects the status of cricket’s shortest format as its primary tool for growth. Despite this, and the increasing popularity of domestic T20 competitions, Jamieson is confident that the Cricket World Cup will remain the sport’s premier event, although he believes the different forms of the game will deliver different profiles of spectator.
This article has been adapted from a feature in the April 2015 edition of SportsPro looking ahead to the Cricket World Cup, World Athletics Championships and the Rugby World Cup. Click here to subscribe.