Selling cricket as a commodity

Photo from Getty
Contributed by Glen Davis

When Guy Debord wrote his seminal work, The Society of the Spectacle, he may have had the Kentucky Fried Chicken sponsored Big Bash League, (BBL), in his thoughts:

Everything that appears is good. Whatever is good will appear.

Cricket is a statistician’s dream – highest scores, greatest winning margins, most runs in a session – there are endless topics to enthral and intrigue students of the game. Not to mention the excitement amongst fans and supporters of the game, be it a test series or the more recent leagues.

Add to that the minute to minute wagers on all of the matches keeping bookies and bettors on their toes, leading to the rise of sports betting arbitrage and other ways to indulge in the game, making cricket a popular and talked about sport – for a while, at least.

But who is cognisant of results, let alone records in the BBL? How many of us can recall the results or recite the records in this format of the game? Does it matter? Do we care?

Thomas Adorno wrote of the culture industry referring to a process he called “standardisation.” For Adorno, standardisation was a concept used to characterize the formulaic products of capitalist-driven mass media and mass culture, appealing to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of maximum profit.

Standardisation gives people the impression a product is aimed specifically at them. The autographed framed team photo, the selfie with your hero, the gift card, and the online store are all part of this. It would suggest that so much as sport has morphed into entertainment, so this is an apt description of what is offered for us to enjoy.

The BBL, being the most modern format of the game of cricket, meets the definition of standardisation. Like with Adorno’s definition of the culture industry, the KFC BBL aims for the mass audiences required to produce big revenues. The BBL variant of cricket no longer has players stoically defending to build a big innings, or a bowler putting in a lengthy match winning spell. Rather the audience just sits back to watch the sixes being hit, the exploding stumps, the miked up cricketers being interviewed, the action becomes the sole interest. The match result – is that of any consequence at all?

Go to the KFC BBL website, examine how it’s promoted. It is all about the experience:

With 3 hours of action, fireworks, great music plus loads more entertainment, the KFC BBL is the ultimate family night out.

How good is it to appear at a night out at the BBL? Nary does a word in this blurb say anything specific to watching a cricket match.

Something is working though. Reading through the recent Cricket Australia annual report:

The BBL remained a consistently popular TV offering, with an average of more than 1 million people tuning in to every match. The TV ratings for BBL saw it win 31 of 35 nights and cement itself as the number one ranked TV programs for families over summer. In terms of attendance, the season enjoyed an average of 30,114 people per match, a 2.3% increase on last year and placing it among the 10 biggest domestic leagues in the world.

Certainly, that’s spectacular in any language.

The BBL gives the appearance of bringing lots of money in. Yet, despite all the hype and publicity surrounding it, maybe the BBL is not as successful as it’s portrayed. During the heated negotiations earlier this year, for the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Cricket Australia and the players’ union, serious allegations were made about the finances of the BBL.

Allegedly the BBL, despite its apparently spectacular imagery, lost $33.M over five years. We now hear talk that a scramble for an updated TV contract is imperative for it to be solvent. Cricket Australia has a current operating deficit of $50.8 M, of which the losses from the BBL are a substantive factor.

Not all is gloom and doom though – KFC have re-signed with the BBL, obtaining naming rights ahead of this forthcoming season. The deal is valued at $1-2M, being the sixth season of this partnership. It never ceases to intrigue me, how the commercial partnerships between fast food corporations and ‘sport’ are accepted as something good. During the recent Rugby League World Cup, I was bemused watching the advertisement of KFC Chips and Gravy $2-50, superimposed onto the playing arena.

Earlier on I alluded to the relationship between cricket and statistics. We can recite Sir Donald Bradman having a test average of 99.94, Shane Warne has the most test wickets for Australia, and we remember the last Ashes series on Australian soil being won by Australia 5-0.

Yet, how many people know/care if Usman Kwahaja with an average of 51.18 has the highest average in the BBL format. Likewise, would many people know that Ben Laughlin, with 69 wickets, is currently the greatest wicket taker in this format? In the six years the format has been around, it has been won thrice by the Perth Scorchers. Is that recalled by most cricket fans? Does it actually mean anything after the sixes have been hit, the fireworks and music have been dulled, and the cameras no longer roll?

One does not have to be a boffin, with a head buried in books endlessly going through statistics, to marvel at the accomplishments of the men and women who have turned out on the cricket fields, to wonder where cricket is heading. Cricket has changed so rapidly and so much you wonder if it is appropriate to still call it a sport.

In a world where all seems about exchange for gain, everything being commodified, why should cricket, or any sport, be different? As we know all commodities have their two values, the use value and the exchange value, with the latter generally presenting as the primary. The KFC BBL is one of the most accentuated examples of the commodification in the sporting (entertainment) world. No longer do existing teams appear, but new franchises, where older concepts like playing for your team, your local side, are deemed irrelevant in entertaining the crowds with financial gain for players and corporate partners overwhelming all else.

This isn’t criticism of a changing game from the perspective of an older bloke, more an observation of how these changes reflect our ever changing world. Cricket, now is packaged as entertainment not sport, with the skills and achievements displayed in the match, now accorded to its entertainment ‘value’, as it goes from being a sport, to playing a role in an industry where every game is little different. This commodified entertainment package is part of contemporary Australia.



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