Cricket’s Mid-Life Crisis

 

When last week’s pay television ratings were released, the India Vs Australia Test Match Series occupied the top three positions. “Cricket on the Continent Captivates Subscription Viewers”, the press release trumpeted. On this basis some may think that the game is in a healthy place right now. However, the bigger picture shows cricket in general is on a downward spiral.

 

The first reason for cricket’s malaise is that it’s having a mid-life crisis. To borrow a phrase popular with Kevin Rudd, it doesn’t know if it’s Arthur or Martha. Has Test match cricket been usurped by Twenty20 cricket? And if Twenty20 cricket is now the dominant form of the game, what role does the 50-over game play?

 

The game desperately needs to go off on a retreat, sort itself out, and until it comes back sure of itself, interest will continue to wane.

 

This has hitherto been impossible because the true powers within the game – everyone other than the ICC – have been blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes. The fanaticism associated with the Indian Premier League vis-a-vis the latest Test series shows were the Board of Control for Cricket in India is extracting the majority of its revenue, while the fact that players are opting for the hit and giggle shows where their hearts truly lie.

 

This leads to the second reason for the games mid-life crisis – it’s excessive neo-liberalism puts Jeff Kennett to shame. One only needs to pay a visit to their local library to see this. While a player may publicly quiver in nationalistic pride when they are handed their baggy green in front of their teammates, the fact that they are off writing their own biographies fifty overs later shows what truly rules in this game – individualism and the almighty dollar. Once they have finished drooling in their own pretension they will doubtlessly be filming their latest television commercial, with advertisements for car dealerships and takeaway outlets once again set to challenge poor American imports as this summer’s television turn-off. Of course this is no different to what we saw in this year’s Olympic games, with our individual athletes attributing the ecstasy of their victories to the jingoistic thought of “doing it for Australia”, only for us to then pick up the newspaper the next morning to read the obligatory analysis from media-buyer Harold Mitchell as to how marketable they are.

 

Cricket’s commercialisation was at its most blatant during the Indian Premier League this year. The “clubs” are the quintessential twenty-first century rich-man’s sporting franchise. While these franchises may be named after geographic regions, it is not unreasonable to doubt whether any of its international players have the slightest idea where they would find the fans they are supposedly representing. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine Ricky Ponting visiting a local Kolkata school to conduct cricket clinics, or inform the schoolchildren of the dangers of substance abuse. What has always made people so passionate about cricket is its patriotism. Why do Australians love to revel in the glory of winning an Ashes series? Because it means we beat the Poms, something of significance since the days of a colony beating its mother country and subsequently proving its worth. If the game is going to remove this regionalism by establishing generic franchises comprised of disparate playing groups, what will be left for the average cricket fan once the novelty of watching a big six is over? The purists are already cringing in their rocking chairs, and if the game continues along its current path and bastardises itself any further, the game’s players really will be left to please themselves.

 

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NewNBL: Reforming against the economic grain?

 

The global economic crisis is already having an impact on sport.

 

In the AFL, Melbourne and Western Bulldogs are without sponsors, likewise Manly and the Canterbury Bulldogs in the NRL. There are suggestions the AFL may have to hasten slowly in its expansion plans, while recently in the EPL West Ham and West Brom took to the pitch wearing jerseys naked of corporate logos.

 

As the National Basketball League gets set to enter a new phase, it will be hoping to insulate itself from similar issues. For a sport already battling negative perceptions emanating from an often-ignorant mainstream media, the last thing basketball needs is yet another obstacle between itself and the scarce corporate dollar. However, Martin Hirons, head researcher at Sports Business Partners, last week told The Australian that sponsorships based purely on client entertainment will be the most vulnerable when corporations look to tighten their belts. This does not bode well for basketball, for one of its greatest strengths is the courtside, open-air boxes that offer hospitality with immediacy that few other sports can match.

 

Perhaps more significant will be how the NewNBL attracts adequate bids for licenses in the new league set to tip-off in October 2009. While the finer details of the commercial review into basketball have not been publicly released, it is common knowledge that the league will be enforcing strict criteria when evaluating bids from current and prospective club owners. The theory is that by imposing a high annual license fee, the league will not only be able to ditch its reliance on government funding, but it will also see the back of under resourced clubs such as the Sydney Spirit. However, considering the current economic climate, this may not be a wise move.

 

There is little doubt that the NewNBL intends to include the reborn Sydney Kings and Brisbane Bullets, but this is only possible if they can find willing buyers. After the Kings collapsed earlier this year there were two last minute bids that looked certain to revive the club. Neither of them got up. Just as Eddy Groves was set to put up the white flag and concede defeat on the Brisbane Bullets, local businessman Brian Stephenson came to the rescue by showing interest in buying the club. Like the Kings’ bids, Stephenson failed to satisfy the NBL board.

 

If none of these bids were able to meet the NBL’s current criteria, how can we assume that there are prospective owners in Sydney and Brisbane who will be able to meet the NewNBL’s even-harsher standards? Few NBL clubs are profitable. The league has a history of rich entrepreneurs buying basketball clubs as a hobby to go with their sports cars, only to give up on them when realising it is unsustainable in the long term. Therefore, until the sport can prove otherwise, it will continue to rely on this breed of cashed-up basketball lovers – a breed that is surely beginning to die out.

 

Sydney and Brisbane won’t be the only markets where this could be an issue. If, for example, Adelaide owner Mal Hemmerling is unable to meet the new criteria for a license and there is no other interest from the South Australian business community, will the NewNBL remain so steadfast that it will happily go ahead without a team in Adelaide?

 

If our economic fears are confirmed, don’t be surprised if the more things change in Australian basketball, the more they will have to stay the same.

 

Watershed Weekend For Hoops

Spirit: an intangible myth

Sydney Spirit supporter base: see above.

 

Round 5 proved to be a watershed moment for the future of the National Basketball League/ “NewNBL” for two reasons.

 

Firstly, the abysmal turnout of 1,476  people in the 10,500-seat Sydney Entertainment Centre last Friday night should be the final nail in the coffin of the dying franchise formerly known as the West Sydney Razorbacks. The game’s stakeholders should deliver this nail when they vote on the league’s revamp on November 8th.

 

On the court the Sydney Spirit are admirable. They are well coached and considering they would be one of the few clubs under the salary cap, Rob Beveridge’s no-frills team deserves credit for even being competitive with the Perth Wildcats, let alone beating them. But off the court is another story, and when the game’s new independent board issues criteria for new licenses, win-loss columns and on-court intensity will be rendered irrelevant. Put bluntly, Friday night’s turnout has brought further embarrassment on the embattled league and if they are serious about introducing an elite competition next year that will be attractive to sponsors and broadcasters, the NewNBL cannot be represented in the country’s largest market by an under-resourced and under-supported club such as the Spirit.

 

The Spirit last week attacked Dragons coach Brian Goorjian for his comment in the Daily Telegraph that for the league to be successful in Sydney the return of the Kings is essential. The club’s insecure co-owner Greg Evans said of Goorjian:

 

“I think he should spend his time coaching the Dragons instead of marketing a dead franchise. Goorjian would be well advised to live in the present. That’s what were doing, as Sydney’s sole NBL representative team.”

 

Evans is right. Goorjian wasn’t living in the present when he made his comments. He was looking to the future – something the Spirit will not be part of.

 

The second watershed moment coming out of Round 5 that the voting stakeholders must take notice of was the 9308 people who attended the South Dragons Vs Melbourne Tigers derby at Hisense Arena on Saturday night.  The biggest crowd in Melbourne for 7 years was the silver lining in an otherwise gloomy NBL season, and is the one occasion where the league can genuinely prove to mainstream on-lookers that a return to the halcyon days is not beyond them. In fact, these Melbourne derbies at Hisense Arena are very much a reunion for basketball fans, as we gather together in our droves and rekindle the ‘good old days’ of Melbourne Park and the Glasshouse. To voluntary remove this occasion from the league’s calendar just for the sake of “following the A-league” and implementing a 1-team-per-town policy would be laughable. Let’s not be sheep and plagiarise Frank Lowy’s reforms. Let’s do things our way so in the future, when other sports are on their knees, they can say “let’s copy what basketball did.”

 

Hammer not hitting nail on the head

 

Australian journalists can put down their pens now. Yep, that includes you Milney. Because the Walkley Awards are as good as over – the name “Shane Heal” is being engraved as we speak, such is the engrossment his weekly Gold Coast Bulletin column “Hammer Time” is already providing us.

 

This week’s wisdom began with the lead:

 

“I sat down this week and asked myself what I could possibly write about?”

 

 That’s one way to immediately get the locals tossing their Bulletins in the bin and taking a dip in the water – choosing tranquillity over tedium from a man obviously possessing as many constructive ideas as he did as Dragons coach last season.

 

Heal went on to defend his coach Brendan Joyce, who made headlines a fortnight ago for telling Perth journalist Ross Lewis that he should leave his post-game press conference, simply for writing that the signing of 38-year old Heal may stymie his young players development.

 

The major flaw in Heal’s defence (not a word usually associated with Heal) was the premise that Joyce was “reprimanded” by the NBL and that the sport has “sanitised the individual’s views and emotions.” As a stalwart of the league, Heal would surely know that a reprimand – which was nothing more than a caution from Interim CEO Chuck Harmison – from the toothless NBL is as threatening as a Daniel Joyce long-range bomb.

 

The irony of Heal’s defence (again, that seems like an oxymoron) of Joyce is that sure, he should be able to vent his opinion when appropriate, but what about Ross Lewis? Is he not afforded the same entitlement? Is one of our country’s few basketball journalists not allowed to share his innocuous views– and subsequently give the game much needed coverage – in an uncompromising manner?

 

C’mon Hammer, might be best to stick to coaching… er… playing.

Dragons on You Tube

Media Manager Ed Wyatt’s interview with Dragon Mark Worthington, as seen on the big screen prior to the September 17 home game at Hisense.

NRL Grand Final Week: The Murdoch Express

 

All aboard the Murdoch express. On your left will be our Sydney Daily Telegraph journalists poking and prodding you. On your right will be our Melbourne Herald Sun journalists shouting jingoistic messages into your ear, urging you to stand up for yourselves. Final destination: we will all be simultaneously sitting on our couches at 5pm on Sunday evening watching the NRL Grand Final with passion flowing through our veins.

 

Unfortunately, some Melbournians have remained ignorant to the conductor’s plans and taken their ride a little too seriously.

 

Take, for example, Sean Wood of Geelong who wrote into the Herald Sun’s Letters page this week stating:

 

“I can only agree that the levels of vitriol and contempt bordering on outright hatred displayed by some in the NSW media is staggering.”

 

What Wood needs to realise is the political economy of the National Rugby League. Melbournians can cry foul all they want about the NRL mistreating the Storm, or the Daily Telegraph running “vitriolic” campaigns against the Storm, only to be countered by the Herald Sun. The fact is they are all bedfellows. News Ltd owns them all. If it weren’t for the “vitriolic media” and Murdoch’s Moolah there wouldn’t be a Melbourne Storm. Storm skipper Cameron Smith acknowledged this fact in his press conference this week, saying “our game’s run by the media…”

 

So if you’re a Victorian feeling a little hot under the collar, please put your News Ltd newspaper down on the coffee table, take a step back so you can keep a critical distance, and recognise the fact that you’re simply being taken for a ride on the Murdoch express. Sydney won’t win. Melbourne won’t lose. Rugby League will be the winner.

………………………………………………………………………………………..

 

Meanwhile, speaking of League, The Age’s Richard Hinds wrote an article on Tuesday describing Melbourne Storm players as “anonymous”, and backed it up on Thursday by dubbing them the “great unwatched.” Returning to the political economy aspect, is this simply a case of a Fairfax journalist unwilling to recognise the game’s inroads in Victoria?

 

Sure, the Storm may not be mainstream, but in Wallerstein’s World Systems terms they have moved from the periphery to the semi-periphery within just eleven years of existence. The club has a strong media presence, and not just in Murdoch’s Herald Sun. They have lead all television news bulletins this week, while during the season they have had Monday night games broadcast live on Triple M along with a weekly hour on SEN. A 2008 Roy Morgan Research poll found that Storm has 769,000 supporters, second only to the Broncos. Hinds himself mentioned that last years Grand Final peaked at over 800,000 viewers in Melbourne, and since Brian “flip” Waldron took charge their jersey has become worth as much as any other NRL club’s. Their most recent Olympic Park crowds have been in the range of 14,000 – on par with the Melbourne Victory’s final game at the same venue. Few would dare call the Victory “anonymous.”

 

As a basketball fan who has to wait until Round 6 for any TV coverage and has to read interstate newspapers to get a decent grasp on what’s happening in the league, Hinds’ comment that the Storm are “anonymous” would be laughable if it didn’t feel like such a slap in the face.