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24 September 2017

How cricket is going global with Netflix and Amazon

The sport, both real and dramatised, is now seen as a way to reach new markets.

By Ed Smith

In the late 1990s, cricket seemed on the wrong side of history. The success of football’s new Premier League had left cricket behind. In 1998, the BBC stopped its previously unbroken tradition of televising live cricket. (Channel 4 won the broadcasting rights to England home Test matches, but lost out to Sky in 2006.) Before the invention of Twenty20 (T20), cricket was associated with decline. It would never compete with football – or so I was told, a few years later, on my first day at the National Cricket Academy.

This recent history is worth remembering today. This month, Star India Sports, the Indian branch of Rupert Murdoch’s business empire, bid £1.97bn for the broadcast and digital rights to the Indian Premier League (IPL) for the next five years. That is a fourfold increase on the last deal, which was won by Sony.

There are three layers of interest here: the development of sport as a driver of globalisation, the influence of cricket as mass entertainment and, finally, the adaptation of entertainment industries more generally.

The new IPL deal, worth £6.57m for each match, makes it one of the world’s most lucrative sports leagues in terms of television rights. As a reference point, a single Premier League match is valued at £7.37m thanks to its global popularity.

Tech companies, inevitably, are competing for a slice of the new cricketing bounty. Facebook bid $600m for the IPL rights but fell short; Amazon and Yahoo! also signed up without participating in the final bidding process.

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The IPL’s popularity, however, is also driving adjacent business plans in the entertainment industry. Netflix in India recently unveiled plans for a new drama series based on cricket and corruption. Amazon is already streaming Inside Edge, a glitzy ten-part series drawing on similar themes inside a fictional Mumbai T20 team.

Netflix is targeting the premium Indian market (it costs £6 a month to subscribe); Amazon Prime (closer to £6 a year) has a more mass-market strategy. Both, revealingly, are using cricket as their pitch to reach a wider audience.

Those with longer memories may remember another cricketing drama with a similar title to Amazon’s new hit series – Richard Harris’s lovely play Outside Edge, first staged in 1979. Set inside a village cricket pavilion on a rainy afternoon, the play is a wry take on English middle-class life, with cricket providing the canvas for a portrait of marital tension and status anxiety.

From Outside Edge to Inside Edge – tea and warm beer on the village green replaced by super-agents sipping premium whisky in luxury Indian hotels. It’s an apt metaphor for a period of tumultuous change in cricket. A game that was once synonymous with antique Englishness and gentlemanly fair play has become central to the Asian expansion model for American business giants. Cricket, both real and dramatised, is now seen as a way to reach new markets.

This twist is bound up with the adaptation of the sports industry. Television companies buy and sell chunks of time; tech companies seek hooks into people’s interests. Their business, quite literally, is what we care about. That’s why sport, as one of the world’s pre-eminent passions, looks increasingly secure as a long-term business bet.

However, the emergence and influence of the IPL is often framed as part of a conflict within cricket, a battle for the sport’s soul, with the quick thrills of T20 representing a threat to the rhythm and sensibility of the traditional long game. It’s true that managing the prestige and distinctiveness of Test cricket alongside T20 presents serious challenges.

Yet there is another way of looking at it. England’s Ben Stokes signed a £1.7m deal last season for the IPL team Rising Pune Supergiant. Players’ salaries are expected to increase further and faster. If you had suggested this to the English professional cricketers of the late 1990s – when they were carefully dividing up sponsored (that is, free) jumbo packets of Benson & Hedges cigarettes in county dressing rooms – they would have been incredulous.

More important than money (though not unconnected) is the level of interest. The advent of T20 has brought a new audience to the game, in India and increasingly elsewhere. Power inevitably rebalances, as the shape of the sport’s popularity changes.

Perhaps those who see only the risks of T20 feel cut out. (Full disclosure: I have worked as a consultant with one of the IPL teams, the Royal Challengers Bangalore.) The shorter format has created a different distribution, both on the field and off it.

As the pop band the Duckworth Lewis Method put it: “Always denied entry/By the English gentry/Now they’re driving Bentleys/Playing Twenty20.”

Besides, cricket is not a zero-sum game. The English game is also likely to benefit from the global ascent of Twenty20. Having originated the concept in 2003, only to watch the format take off in India and Australia, English cricket is finally getting its own premier league in 2020. Sport’s globalisation, in other words, is now travelling east-west as well as west-east.

I expect the forthcoming English T20 premier league – which will be city-based and feature eight teams – to spark new interest and excitement about cricket. If so, it will add a further ironic twist. With an elegant symmetry, England’s new T20 league will be partly broadcast on the BBC for an initial five years, the first time top-flight cricket has been shown live on the BBC for more than two decades.

So the oldest English team game, revolutionised by an Indian start-up league, will return to mainstream English television, via the state broadcaster.

Who saw all that coming?