For the first time after a long time, if not ever, tickets were not sold out for ODIs in India during the India v England ODI series. It did raise eyebrows but people weren’t really losing sleep. Then the West Indies Test series and after the second Test match, people are beginning to get worried. It is probably the lowest crowd recorded at Eden Gardens for atleast 20 years. Sachin was on 99 hundreds and even that did not fill up the stadium, VVS and Rahul Dravid were continuing their love affair with the Eden but there were very few people to watch it. This is worrying people across the cricketing world as everyone realises the importance of Indian fans to international cricket. Everyone except the BCCI...
It has always been taken for granted that fans would throng to the stadium for any fixture featuring India. Officials were more prone to facing problems of fans overcrowding at ticket counters, waiting in queues overnight, managing crowds trying to rush into the stadium and it may be said that the officials had not really mastered the art of such management and had often cursed this ‘fanaticism’. Now they are facing a completely new problem, a problem which does not make their phone go tring tring every two minutes with people asking for passes for a cricket match, but the fact that there are probably more security guards at ticket counters than fans seeking tickets. This has probably made their job more hassle-free but only for the short term. Falling attendances at stadiums will lead to reduced revenue through sponsorship and broadcast, for starters. There are more far reaching consequences and consequences that could hurt the international cricket community.
So what can the BCCI do? Firstly, stop relying on cricket to sell itself. It used to happen all these years but the times have changed. The men in power must start formulating strategies to bring people into the stadium. It is time the BCCI themselves invest in advertising. In the current scenario, they could have used Sachin’s 100th hundred as a major driver to increase footfalls. Hire advertising boards at prominent places, put up attractive taglines like “Don’t you want to be there when God hits the 100th 100?” or more creative ones. Yes people already know that Sachin is on 99 but when you have a huge ad-board with Sachin staring into your eyes and asking you to be there, it will get people thinking. What after Sachin’s hundred? Well we are never short of milestones in cricket and watching players like Sachin, Dravid and Laxman in the twilight of their careers should be motivation enough. We’re at the stage when these motivations need to be communicated to the fans, and communicated again and again. I am sure we will pass this stage and get back to the ‘tickets sold-out’ stage but this is like a passing shower and the BCCI need to pull the covers out, or else, the match could be abandoned.
On a more long term basis, the BCCI should have its own ‘Fans Relationship management’ division like a number of teams in different parts of the world. The Indian fan is known to be the most passionate and it is important to make him feel valued, make him feel that his passion is noticed; make him proud to be an Indian team supporter. The BCCI would do well to revamp its website, make it more interactive and get the fans involved. It is a hard thing in a passion-charged country like ours but allow registered users to have occasional online chat sessions with officials, selectors, team management and maybe the players too. Make the fans feel like their views are heard. Yes you may have a million people giving advice on selection issues which may not always be correct and considered even, but you may have a few thousand give you vital inputs on areas that can be improved like stadium facilities, ticketing and the overall desires and complaints. For that part of the population who do not access the internet, and its a majority in India, the BCCI could reach out through social activities, distribute India team jerseys and other merchandise, put up a big screen in remote areas, distribute free tickets and so on. With the enormous revenue that the BCCI has made, this concept should be a feasible one or atleast make an attempt.
Another method that can be adopted by the BCCI is to follow preferential allotment of games among venues. At present, there is a rotational policy in place to ensure that all venues get an equal share of games which provides no motivation to the Heads of State Associations to work on getting people into the stadium. Instead the BCCI could initiate a policy where a stadium which ensures maximum footfalls gets more games. This will certainly push state associations to increase ticket sales and also people from that state may want to go to the matches either with the hope of getting to watch another more exciting match in the future or with the fear that their stadium may not get to host another match anytime soon. I do realise that it is not as easy as it sounds as there are a lot of stakeholders involved who could lose if this policy came into effect. It may be complicated, but BCCI should draw up a transparent policy and get this into effect.
And a really simple suggestion would be to not start Test matches on a Monday! Please use the weekend for either the start or the finish of a match. Cricket fans too have jobs and schools to attend.
Also, make the experience of watching a match at the stadium a comfortable and an enjoying one. This will get cricket fans, who prefer the comfort of their arm-chairs and couches at home, to come to the stadium and watch a long day of Test cricket. Offer good quality food and beverages, clean stands and toilets and basically make the customers ‘feel at home’.
Let us hope, for the good of International Cricket that people in India become ‘crazy’ over cricket, just like before.