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Saturday 11 May 2019

money in sport

Calypso collapso

  • All good sport relies on robust competition – and on the best not becoming overmighty
  • New cricket formats have made the sport richer than ever, but the Caribbean game is being starved of cash
  • The West Indies side has traditionally been one of cricket’s great teams but economics is taking its toll on the team

By Tim Wigmore

“Any given Sunday” is one of the most cherished mantras of the NFL, the most lucrative sports league in the world. It embodies how the notion of competitive balance – maintaining the fundamental uncertainty of who will win any given American football match – is wired into the league.

It has been this way since 1962, when the owners of the US National Football League franchises met to discuss their television revenue. The New York Giants – who earned five times more from TV revenue than the small market Green Bay Packers – argued for broadcasting revenue to be shared equitably, saying that the NFL was only as strong as its weakest link. This ethos still reigns today.

Remnants of such egalitarian spirit have long dissipated from international cricket. On one level this is curious: the top echelons of international cricket are populated by few countries. National teams need strong opponents to draw in crowds and obtain big TV revenues.

For many years, the West Indies were to international cricket what Green Bay were to American football: a team who defied coming from a small economy to dominate their sport. The city of Green Bay has a population of only 100,000; the 15 nations and territories that comprise the West Indies have a population of six million. Like the Packers, the West Indies were widely embraced by other fans as their second team of choice during an astounding and unprecedented run of 29 series of Test matches – the five-day format of the game – in which they were undefeated from 1980 to 1995.

During this time, the West Indies were among the most celebrated teams in international sport, and were seen as representing a deeper cause: the emancipation and self-expression of the Caribbean region after the end of colonialism. “I have five million West Indians depending on me to perform at my best so they can walk the streets and be proud,” Michael Holding, one of the greatest of the team’s fast bowlers, said in the documentary film Fire in Babylon, a celebration of the team.

Michael Holding on tour in England in May 1980

But in the past 25 years, the changing economics of cricket have endangered the sport in the West Indies. The problem is not that people do not want to watch the game, nor even that they do not want to see the West Indies play. The problem is that revenues from the sport are not getting where they need to be. While the West Indies have continued to produce some great players, they have increasingly been seen playing for other teams in lucrative tournaments around the world. Without several of their leading players in the qualifying tournament, the West Indies – two-time former Cricket World Cup winners – came perilously close to failing to qualify for this year’s World Cup in England, which begins on 30 May.

 

“What you see around here is a lot of talent,” says Keith Arthurton, looking out at the cricket nets of the main academy in Saint Kitts and Nevis. “We have the talent but we don’t have the resources.”

Arthurton, who played 33 Tests for the West Indies, is one of the six Test cricketers who have hailed from the tiny island of Nevis, just off Saint Kitts, where the population is only 11,000. They like to describe the island as, per capita, the greatest producer of international cricketers in the Caribbean.

The West Indies have declined far from their peak – they are ranked eighth out of 12 countries in Test matches and ninth in the one-day international format. These poor rankings bely that the West Indies can still be a devastating side.

At the start of 2019, they defeated England – who had won eight of their previous nine matches – in a Test series, and are also the reigning Men’s World Cup champions in Twenty20, the shorter, snazzier version of cricket launched in 2003.

Yet the macroeconomic forces in the sport are such that, rather than producing a great national team, now the West Indies may merely produce great players, to be enjoyed largely by clubs around the world, rather than their international side.

In recent years, the West Indies have seldom fielded their strongest possible team, with a coterie of leading players preferring to play in lucrative club competitions overseas rather than international cricket. The West Indies can be considered a test case for how cricket – and international sport more broadly – is responding to the challenges that globalisation and hyper-commercialisation are throwing down to poor nations.

“Financial constraints are always the main problem,” Arthurton said. Cash – who has it and who lacks it – has never mattered so much in international cricket, and been so important in determining who wins on the pitch. The fear is that the unprecedented wealth in cricket has left the West Indies behind.

 

“Some of these guys are not in a position where they can buy their own gear,” says Arthurton, as he watches his academy players training. “So you will have to provide bats and pads.”

Young West Indian players

England are practising in the academy nets, ahead of playing two Twenty20 internationals at the ground. Arthurton plans to ask Graham Thorpe – whom he once played Test cricket against, and who is now England batting coach – “if he can do anything in terms of giving us a bat or two or some gloves”.

A choppy six-minute water taxi ride over from the Saint Kitts mainland lies Nevis. Arthurton’s old cricket club, Jessups Cricket Club, still lacks toilets; players must use the bushes that nestle around the ground instead.

In Nevis, local resident Virgil Browne, who played first-class cricket and later worked as a massage therapist for the West Indies team, believes that there remains bountiful talent, particularly in the U-15 and U-17 age groups.

Browne says there are two main obstacles to these cricketers fulfilling their potential. The first is facilities: “It’s even a lack of pitches, people to prepare the pitches, coaches to be there, uniforms, coaching equipment, nets, bowling machines – all this stuff.”

He laments that, if there was “even three months a year where you have a structured programme and all the necessary facilities to go along with that, it would definitely make a big difference”.

The second great impediment Browne identifies is a paucity of cash to keep players involved in cricket. “The young boys are interested in cricket but I find we lose a lot of our boys between 17 and 23. If we have a programme that can hold at least, say, 24 together for a period of time, and show them that you can make money off this sport, it would do wonders.”

Organising each match for the academy he runs in Saint Kitts costs about a thousand East Caribbean Dollars (£280): “We do a lot of net training, physical training and that sort of thing but we don’t get the chance to play a lot of matches – being able to compete and know where you’re at.”

The wise know nostalgia for what it is. Young players today have it much better than when Arthurton was growing up. But the abiding worry is that West Indies grassroots cricket is failing to keep pace with the huge improvements in their richer rivals, and the gap with other countries is actually increasing.

Training session at Bayley’s Primary School in Barbados

Hyper-commercialisation in cricket is creating hyper-professionalism; the richest teams off the field can buy the best technology, physios, data analysts and coaches to make themselves the best at it, too. For instance, video analysis is becoming increasingly essential at senior and junior level alike, and an indispensable tool for the best young players from India, Australia and England funnelled into plush academies. Arthurton would like to be able to conduct video sessions too, so young players “have an understanding of what needs to be done”.

 

The difficulties on the ground in the Caribbean are a microcosm of the wider challenges that international cricket faces: above all the vast – and growing – disparity in wealth between nations. Cricket West Indies has an annual revenue of US$45 million, which quickly disappears given that each Test costs around US$500,000 to stage. Hosting international cricket is far more expensive than for rival nations because it involves flying the West Indies side, and their opponents, from island to island. If the board’s penury is not new, its relative financial position has become worse.

The 2007 Cricket World Cup Final between Sri Lanka and Australia in Bridgetown, Barbados

Economics is also undermining some of the traditions that underpin West Indian cricket. This year has already seen one tour by England, and India is to come. The West Indies expect to make almost US$40 million from these tours, which will be used to subsidise losses in other years. To make as much from these visits as possible, Cricket West Indies used a bidding scheme – with the islands’ different governments bidding for the games, which attract large numbers of English tourists.

The upshot is that Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Jamaica – three of the four biggest hotbeds of West Indies cricket – did not host any games against England at all. Beautiful tourist islands are getting the marquee internationals, not core cricket islands.

Some of Cricket West Indies’ problems are self-inflicted: poor administration. The payment of US$100m that the West Indies received from the International Cricket Council for hosting the 2007 World Cup was, at the very best, grossly mismanaged.

Street cricket in Georgetown, Guyana

Yet such issues do not obscure the fact that the West Indies have been a victim of three broad shifts in the sport, which no amount of sagacious administration could have prevented.

The first is the explosion in broadcasting rights, and a change in how these are distributed, creating a financial chasm between the West Indies and the richest boards.

Until 2001, Test nations planned tours among themselves, with the away team receiving a tour fee. So although their home broadcasting market was small, the West Indies could be well rewarded when they toured. They would receive a fee – normally about 20 per cent of the home broadcasting rights – for each tour. From 1979 to 1993, the West Indies toured Australia on seven separate occasions, each visit buttressing the West Indies’s finances.

But in 2001 – when the West Indies’ decline had already begun – the terms of the touring agreements were changed. Hosting teams would keep all the profits of a series, in exchange for tours being agreed on a reciprocal basis. This was disastrous for the West Indies which, with their smaller local broadcasting market, make far less from hosting teams than those same countries make when the West Indies tour.

Today, Cricket West Indies earns US$16m (£12m) a year from their broadcasting contract – a pittance compared with India’s US$700m (£525m), and 18 times less than England’s annual US$286m (£220m) deal which begins in 2020.

The second shift has been the collapse of egalitarianism in how international cricket is structured. Until 2014, the International Cricket Council (ICC) divided up all its broadcasting rights – derived from selling global events, principally World Cups – equally between all Test nations; the West Indies, or indeed Zimbabwe, would receive as much as India. Then India, in cahoots with Australia and England, successfully pushed to receive a much higher share, threatening to walk away from international cricket if other countries did not accept.

Two years ago, the Big Three settlement was partially undone, although the old settlement remains in ruins. In place of the former equal-share agreement, India now gets US$405m from the ICC over the 2016-23 cycle, while England receive $139m and the West Indies only $128m.

The third shift – the most salient of all – was the advent of Twenty20, which was turbocharged by the formation of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008. Twenty20 is an ultra-short game; each side gets 120 balls, and they must race to get the highest number of runs.

It is a cricket format that can fit into an evening; leading players now have a far more lucrative alternative to the international game. Instantaneously, the West Indies board lost their position as monopolistic employers.

West Indies batsman Chris Gayle plays at an IPL Twenty20 match in Bangalore

Chris Gayle, a hulking batsman, earned US$1,000 a game for playing one-day internationals; then he collected a US$800,000 contract to play in the first season of the IPL, even though the competition only lasted six weeks.

These vulnerabilities were compounded by the West Indies players’ style: their traditional game of combining power hitting with bowling chicanery makes them terrific Twenty20 cricketers. In the five-year stretch from the start of 2012 until the end of 2016, the seven cricketers who had the most Twenty20 appearances in the world were all West Indian.

They helped the West Indies win two Men’s Twenty20 World Cups, in 2012 and 2016, but seldom played for the West Indies outside these events. For the West Indies in other formats, being Twenty20 pioneers has been a curse, rendering it harder to get anything like their full-strength team together.

Indeed, players are now changing nationality, partly in response; Jofra Archer, a fast bowler who was born in Barbados and played for the West Indies U-19s, is now playing for England. This economic pressure is also affecting wealthier countries.

Duanne Olivier, a 26-year-old fast bowler who had a stellar start to his Test career with South Africa, has recently declared his wish to play for England; a plethora of South African players have retired early from international cricket to play domestic cricket in England instead.

The IPL – and Twenty20 leagues more broadly – has been a boon for West Indies players, enabling them to earn what their talents are worth. Thirteen West Indies players are playing in the current season of IPL, including six who are under 24, showing the Caribbean’s continued ability to produce cricketing talent out of all proportion with the region’s wealth and population.

Yet the upshot is that the West Indies are playing one-day internationals against Bangladesh and Ireland – their last official games before the 50-over World Cup in England – with a shadow side; players with IPL contracts have understandably chosen to remain in India instead.

The West Indies have hinted at an on-field resurgence in recent months and, with most of their IPL stars now in the squad, have the capacity to surprise any team in the World Cup. Yet the extent of what is possible from the international team in the years ahead may be determined less by what the West Indies themselves do than whether the broader economics of the sport can be tilted to allow teams from smaller markets to thrive, as the NFL’s structure has empowered teams like the Green Bay Packers. The fear is that the macroeconomic forces in cricket will only exacerbate, not mitigate, structural inequities in the years ahead: a roadblock to the West Indies being able to field their best possible team.

India and the IPL “probably should” do more to fund Caribbean cricket, Browne believes. “Who in India cricket would make that step, when the argument can be to support home talent instead? It’s a billion people to cater for … We as West Indians have to figure it out on our own.”

All photographs Getty Images

Further reading