Can over-commercialisation kill a sport?

By Anindita Sarkar , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Marketing | December 26, 2011
It's not just cricket. The charm of 'commercialising' a sport is spreading to other formats, as well. But, can commercialisation, when overdone, kill the game?

India has always been a cricket-crazy nation. Regardless of the fact that not everybody is passionate and well-versed with the sport, it still enjoys the highest recall and engagement value among Indians. And, the one major factor that has contributed to this fact in recent times is the highly-commercialised IPL (Indian Premier League) tournament, which arrives each year, dressed in all] its finery, reiterating the fact that the commercialisation of sports is generally profitable for everyone.

It has been seen that the IPL tournaments have not just provided endorsement opportunities for players, but have also introduced to Indian audiences cheerleaders, smart format tweaking, ambush marketing, extensive television exposure, and of course, multiple matches.

And, it's no longer just cricket which has fallen for the charms of commercialisation. Commoditising has extended to other sports, as well. Take for instance the example of World Series Hockey (WSH). Quite like the IPL, the series will be played among eight franchisee-based teams between December 17, 2011 and January 22, 2012. Nimbus Sports is spending more than Rs 100 crore on WHS, making it one of the richest non-cricketing tournaments. For the record, while Nimbus is putting in an estimated Rs 40 crore for the marketing of the series, the eight franchisees will spend Rs 2-3 crore each to promote their teams.

But, while commercialisation may enhance the popularity of a sport, if overdone, can it kill the game itself? afaqs! finds out!

Commercialisation versus over-commercialisation

Commercialisation can be a double-edged sword. If done to the right extent and degree, it has the ability to create a hit product/service offering loved by customers. However, if overdone, it can also kill the best of products/services.

Commercialisation of sports is a reflection of the consumer demand for sports and sports content. It has brought with it better and improved benefits for athletes and sportspersons. Better payments and facilities, more professionalism among sporting authorities, and the creation of modern infrastructure and technology, have collectively madesports events more interactive and interesting to watch.

But, at the same time, commercialising a sports event, especially through the television has converted sports to yet another form of passive entertainment, rather than a participative one(Statistics have proved that over 80 per cent of Indian children no longer play outdoors or indulge in any sport).

Indranil Das Blah, chief operating officer, KWAN, says, "A sport cannot survive without commercialisation. But, a sport will not survive if over commercialised. There's a very thin, but distinct line between the two, a factthat Indian sports stake-holders perhaps still don't fully understand today."

When it comes to over-commercialisation, no other sport in India can be blamed more than cricket today. Be it a pointless bi-nation series, or multiple World Cups across formats, cricket today, has become a 12-month sport, with no breaks.

With the enormous success of the T20 format and the IPL, the governing bodies have ensured that no efforts are spared to gain maximum financial mileage; and while this may work in the short run, it will result in killing the golden goose, argue many.

"IPLhad a great start ," says Blah. "But, rampant commercialisation has resulted in numerous cluttered sponsors, excessive commercial breaks, and a distinct lack of regard towards audiences and players, which led in decreased TRPs and smaller audiences, in its third edition. The same can be said of international cricket.The latest ODI series between West Indies and India played to half-empty stands," he says.

Broadcasters argue otherwise

But, for the broadcasters, commercialization of a sport is a sure-shot revenue earner. The lobby argues that a passionate sports fan is willing to pay money (subscription fee) to watch the sport he/she likes.

Citing the example of formats such as football, wrestling and golf, broadcasters state that commercialisation has helped bring in more viewers, revenue, and marketing pizzazz in the sport, thereby helping the commercial equation and the popularity of these sports even further.

Although most accused of over commercialisation in the category, cricket continues to be the favourite sport for 55-60 million households who want to stay connected to cricket channels and are willing to pay money to watch the game at all times, argue broadcasters.

But, they do agree that the ratings for cricket have dropped lately. This can probably be attributed to lack of other sports avenues, and of course, the marketing blitz around cricket over the years.

"However, the ratings are still good, especially for the key matches, and this continues to be an avenue through which advertisers make a good bang for their buck. The issue with broadcasters continues to be the overall monetisation because of the costs involved," says Atul Pande, CEO, Ten Sports.

Talking about the challenges, Pande further notes, "The challenge lies primarily in big cities, where the overall on-ground entertainment experience during matches needs to be enhanced, as it loses out to other available forms of entertainment. That is a challenge sports administrators have to deal with."

Way forward

While commercialisation is a basic requirement for growth in the popularity of any sports format, it is critical to maintain the integrity of the sport during the commercialisation process to ensure continued investor and consumer interest.

Varun Paliwal, founder and CEO, Winning Matters Consulting, believes that the format of the sport should be tweaked only as the last resort, and in small digestible steps that take into account the feedback from investors and consumers.

"Sports like tennis and football have not made any drastic changes in the format of the games, and have enjoyed a strong following which has grown over the decades by virtue of improving the experience of the investors and consumers. On the other hand, sports like cricket have made many radical changes at short intervals that have left many consumers and investors a little shaky about their allegiance to the sport," he notes.

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