The Advertising Club’s latest episode of ‘Vice and Versa’ saw Shashi Sinha, CEO, IPG Mediabrands India debate with Boria Majumdar, sports journalist, historian and author, whether there is life beyond cricket in Indian sports.
Sinha spoke for the topic while Majumdar spoke against it. Gautam Bhimani moderated the event.
At the outset, Sinha kickstarted the debate by opining that the topic itself needs modification. “In India, there’s no life beyond cricket per se,” he said before explaining this statement.
“2020 was a tough year for all of us. For five months, this country was in a state of panic. What turned around the mood of the nation? It was cricket, with the start of the IPL. It turned everything around. The IPL was watched by 40 crore Indians and there’s no parallel to it,” he said.
To prove how big the tournament was in terms of eyeballs, Sinha compared it to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s addresses during the lockdown which got covered by 197 channels but got a viewer count of half of the IPL at 20 crores.
"Be it Indian Idol or Bigg Boss, no other programming came close. If you look at Google search trends for the full year, even during a year of the pandemic, the IPL was the most searched for. It shows the power of cricket," he said before going on to explain how cricket influenced the economy last year.
For five months it was a mess. Advertising spends reduced by 30-40%. But then came the IPL and look what happened with it. Advertising was sold out before the first ball was bowled in the UAE, bought at a price that was 200% higher than earlier,” he added.
He concluded his opening remarks by saying that while the country was divided last year into many fronts – politics, religion, the pandemic, migrant labour – there was one uniting factor – the IPL and cricket.
Through his opening remarks, Majumdar stated that while the IPL is a six-week tournament, there’s a lot more cricket that’s played in the country, which doesn’t get the same attention.
“The women national team does play the game, but I don’t hear about that. That’s representing half the country – which are women. I didn’t hear about India’s Test series victory against Australia, either. The women’s IPL is still just four games. If you see the way the BCCI treats WIPL, you will figure,” he said.
Going on to label the IPL as a spectacle more than cricket, Majumdar, added, “The IPL is great but it’s not equal to Indian cricket. It’s a spectacle! The Ranji Trophy is true Indian cricket. The women’s team didn’t play international sport for a year between March 2020 and 2021. All of this is cricket, too, and no one is bothered.”
Majumdar went on to state that Sanjog Gupta, CEO – sports, Star India, (broadcaster of Indian cricket in India) believes that no one watched India’s win in Australia because no one watches Test cricket anymore.
Shifting the focus to other sports, Majumdar spoke about the Olympics and claimed that India will have a 15-medal haul in Tokyo later this year.
“When PV Sindhu won the Silver in Rio, it was the most-watched women’s event in 2016. We’ll have 15 medals in the Olympics, too, and then we shall see the interest it generates. Last week there was a Shooting World Cup in Delhi and we won 15 medals there too,” he said.
Moving to brands, advertising, and social trends, Majumdar stated how Sindhu has emerged against Virat Kohli in terms of working with the maximum number of brands.
Taking another dig at the IPL, he added, “People watch the IPL because India wins. It’s not even the standard of international cricket. When I watch India at the Tokyo Olympics, and the team standing up beside the 205 countries participating, that’s India. When India wins in Tokyo, we speak one voice.”
In his rebuttal, Sinha stated that while he would be happiest if India wins 15 medals in Tokyo, but as an advertising veteran, cricket is the sport that attracts the money.
He said, “Keep IPL aside – cricket through the year is played a lot more. The reach of cricket on TV is 92%. The reach of all other sports is under 10%. The other tragic point – you spoke about the women’s league which was just four games, but their ratings were higher than other sports with the exception of Kabaddi. When clients are putting in money, they’re looking at eyeballs and stickiness and cricket gives them that. I agree on the pride that comes from a Gold win in India will be different and brands will pick up on that. But currently, unfortunately, numbers stack up differently.”
Bhimani, who was moderator, then picked up on the point about Sindhu being second to Kohli on the list of brand ambassadors. He stated that while Sindhu had to work really hard to get there and also consciously change her brand image, cricketers get that without that effort.
Majumdar responded, “Yes, it may have been the harder route, but the fact is she got there. If I was born to Mukesh Ambani, life would be easier for me, too. The result of hard work is sweet. Why did cricket get there – it was because of 1983 (India’s first ODI World Cup win). Hockey didn’t have TV coverage in 1975 (India’s only Hockey World Cup win) and so it didn’t get there.”
Adding how there’s interest in athletes outside of cricket, Majumdar stated that Bollywood has created biopics on the likes of Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Milka Singh for that reason.
In terms of more participation for these sports, he added, “Till seven years ago, Pullela Gopichand claims that a mixed doubles badminton competition didn’t attract even 50 participants. Now, these numbers have risen to 3,000. Shooting has also seen a massive rise in interest by attracting almost 10,000 entries.”
He closed his rebuttal by stating, “In England, football is extremely popular, but cricket exists too. Their stadiums are full for Test cricket. The subject says there’s no life beyond cricket in Indian sport. I’m saying there’s 100% life beyond it and when the Olympics come, we will see it. Sindhu’s ad rates went from Rs 5 lakhs to Rs 1.5 crore after her win in Rio. Hard work does translate to money and we Indians don’t shy away from hard work.”
The duo ended their talk with a 30-second pitch each.
Sinha said, “I am a sports lover, but the reality is commerce and numbers. Brands achieve their numbers through cricket. That’s reality. Since it’s a civil debate, we only hope and pray on this international sports day, other sports grow too. Cricket won’t lose out, but the overall sports market will see growth.”
Majumdar said, “I’m not a numbers man and sport is about emotion. I watch sport because I enjoy them. It motivates me and inspires me. When India’s contingent will participate in the march-past before the Olympics, it’ll give me goosebumps. Sport is not about numbers. That’s why we’ll see postcards of Mohamad Siraj (after the Test win in Australia in 2021), Mary Kom (after the Bronze win at the 2012 Olympics), and PV Sindhu (after the Silver win at the Olympics in 2016). So there’s life beyond cricket and always will be.”