During the 2006 Champions Trophy, something very strange happened. Punting on the Indian audiences' reverence of the game, the BCCI had hiked the prices of the match tickets almost as suddenly as the sudden rise in the inflation today in India. There was absolutely no doubt, or so the BCCI thought, about the crowds getting to the grounds irrespective of the costs. After all, one does not think twice about spending the currency on one's religion, or do they? Rather inexplicably, this set the tone for a disastrous crowd interest levels, and one did not view too many matches which were sold out. This was especially the case in matches where India did not feature, and given that the home team played in and crashed out after only three out of the fifteen games, it would be fair to say that most of the matches did not see a blockbuster crowd. The audiences were conspicuous by their absence. If contrasted to the other such tournaments of longer duration, the tournament could not have been termed as a success, not by any stretch of imagination.
While this did not affect the BCCI finances, because the gate receipts do not form a huge chunk of the money, it did bring an underlying truth to light. About the Indian cricket crowds, that is. And Sanjay Manjrekar had made a telling comment on the same, when he observed that cricket fans in India are Indian cricket fans, not just any cricket fans. What he essentially implied was that for an average person on the streets of India, who follows cricket in this day and age, the game is synonymous to Indian cricket, and cricketers and they could not care less if West Indies beat Australia in a tournament hosted by India. The average Indian cricket fan wants to watch India or Indians play the sport, and it hardly matters which team is playing who in the rest of the tournament.
Lest one thinks that this is a piece on BCCI bashing, rest assured it is not. The story is not too different in any other country, and the on going Asia Cup bears ample testimony. The only matches that have seen some kind of crowd interest are the ones involving the home team, and that too has lacked in its usual fervor. None of the matches have been sold out yet, not even the Pakistan-Sri Lanka, do-or-die, round two encounter at the National Stadium in Karachi.
The usually electrifying and much awaited India-Pakistan clash brought in only so much excitement, and if the signs are not monitored now, it can only get worse from here. While the crowds do not bring in the 'real money', the atmosphere created goes a long way in making it a worthwhile experience or otherwise, while relaxing in the realms of one's drawing rooms too, and in the end that is what the sponsors pay for! Dwindling crowds could indirectly kill the golden egg laying goose.
The case with the IPL was a little unique. The format is something that has not been tried before in Indian cricket, and then there was a small case of the fact that promotion and publicity for the tournament had been nearly speckless. However, one would like to observe a point here, and try and play the devil's advocate. Despite the IPL been an unqualified success, there were small indicators to prove that not all what that got sold by Modi and co. was bought by the viewing public. For starters, the stands were not always full as they were made out to be, and here I must add that 'full' is also a relative term. Statistically speaking, for some, the word 'full' may mean anywhere between 90% and 100% of the capacity, for those fortunate souls who have had the privilege of been a part of an Indian ground as paying spectators, the definition takes a different perspective altogether. It usually means that the tickets have been in a huge demand, enough for them to be sold to at least 130-140% of the actual size the stadium can take. At least. Indian grounds have generally been known to swallow the crowds like the now-famous Mumbai locals, the more people inside, the more that want to get in. But I may be deviating from the point here; the fact of the matter is that despite the grounds being full, towards the end of the IPL, I have been a part of crowds where there was not a single body sitting sticking to mine like it normally happens, both in the grounds and the Mumbai trains.
This is a pointer towards the fact that if the home team did not feature in the match - and this particular match was the semi-final between the Kings XI Punjab and the Chennai Super Kings - sustaining the crowds' inflow may just be a problem. Simply put, gone are the days when matches not involving the hosts were equally supported by the crowds. And this has been, to some extent been caused due to the cricket excesses; the overkill of the game.
Again, the same was evident in some of the grounds like at Mohali and the one at Hyderabad, where my bet is that, even a subsidized entry may not have filled up the stadium. The people in both the cities had already witnessed a couple of, one month long, the Essel group backed, ICL tournaments earlier, and then with seven IPL matches been hosted by the respective cities, it was only natural for the audiences to sit in the cooler confines of their drawing rooms.
Australia recently saw a side effect of this phenomenon, the result of which was that they decided to do away with their almost twenty year old tradition of inviting two teams over for a tri-nation, year ending ODI series. 2007-08 saw the last of this tournament. One of the reasons given was that Cricket Australia (CA) were finding it difficult to sustain the bottom line due to the lack of crowd interest and in turn, of those who pump the money into the sport; i.e. the sponsors. Most of the India-Sri Lanka matches in the recent CB series were barely half full, mostly consisting of the Asian expatriates, whose only connection with their home country is probably cricket. What CA would have instead are a couple of ODI series, and all these matches would involve the home team.
The story of Asian Cricket Council (ACC) is no different, and organizing a six-nation Asia Cup has been a difficult proposition not only because of the issues with a cricket-free ICC window, but also because of the number of meaningless matches viewed by almost nobody in the stadium.
It isn't rocket science, but with the emergence of Twenty20 as a humongous threat to the longer cousin, the ODIs, one way of pulling the crowds to the grounds, or rather, a method of not driving them away from the stadiums would be to reduce these neutral team matches to minimum. And that essentially would require more portions of the bilateral series between teams. Unless of course it is a World Cup, obviously, unlike the one held at the Caribbean.