Cricket fans often point out that it is unique among popular sports, in that its top players spend most of the year playing for their national teams. This is in marked contrast to football, which on a day to day basis, is dominated by club teams, and American sports which are centered around local American franchises. The idea of ‘playing for one’s country’ holds deep appeal for many, brought up in a world organized politically into nation states. Commentators and sports writers frequently hold up playing in a national team as an ultimate honour for a sportsman/woman, and among countries with deep political rivalries, sports matches acquire a subtext of war.
Like most urban, English medium Indians, I too subscribed to this view, and took pride in the ‘one in a billion’ rhetoric employed widely by the English media and even intellectuals to describe the Indian team. In the US, despite marveling at the extensive sports infrastructure and the deeply ingrained sporting culture, the fact that I was a follower of a ‘national’ cricket team ensured that I was not overwhelmed by American sports. Not only that, I gradually lost the nascent interest I had developed in European soccer leagues (like a lot of other urban English speaking Indians), finding myself immersed in international cricket, via the internet.
But recently, the discovery of some sports related statistics has altered my viewpoint. This statistic has nothing to do with batting or bowling averages, win-loss ratios or anything like that. It is far simpler. Browsing through the US Bureau of Labor’s detailed stats regarding employment in America, I came across this: the number of actual professional athletes in the US. About 12,000 people make a living playing sports in the US. This excludes coaches and supporting staff.
Is the US, with its three ‘major’ sports leagues, an outlier among rich countries ? To do a cross-Atlantic comparison, I checked to see how many professional athletes there are in the UK. The number is 17,500, surprisingly higher than the US, which has 6 times as many people. Investigating further, I found that there are 4000 professional football players in the UK, 4000 people who make a living by playing football. An amazing statistic. Just for comparison, American football, with a domestic market far larger than that of Britain, supports only 1600 players.
How does British football support so many athletes ? Is it because of the Premier League, with its global reach ? Undoubtedly the Premier League helps, but less than a thousand players are employed by it. What about the rest ? This is where the critical numbers come in. Even the lowest division of professional football in England, ‘League 2’, supports nearly a thousand players. 5000 English people attend an average League 2 football game, ensuring that the average League 2 football player gets paid nearly 50,000 pounds, a great salary in the UK.
Thus to see how deeply a society supports a sport, we have to check whether it puts its money where its mouth is. In other words, how many people actually make a living playing a sport in that country ? For cricket in India, the number is abysmally low, even accounting for the low per capita gdp. Crowds flock to support the 20 players in the Indian cricket team in the name of nationalism, and TV sponsors pump in money because it is a supreme vehicle through which to appeal to the urban/semi-urban middle classes. But until the introduction of sports leagues like the HIL and the IPL, interest in any sport, even cricket, beyond the ‘national team’ has been almost non-existent.
Cricketers in the Ranji trophy, the premier cricket tournament (and in some sense the real equivalent to the EPL in India, rather than the IPL) play in front of empty stadia, with minimal sponsor and TV interest. These players do not generate any revenue on their own, they are effectively reliant on the 20 odd ‘national team’ players for their living. Needless to say, it is an utterly demoralizing reality for professional grade athletes to know that there is no spectator interest in watching their skills, and their daily bread is earned by crumbs trickling down from someone else.
As I pointed out earlier, the UK, with a population of 6 crore (60 million), supports 18,000 professional athletes. Extrapolating directly to India’s population of 125 crore (1250 million), India should support around 4 lakh (400,000) athletes. But of course India is about 10 times poorer than the UK. Taking into account that economic reality, India should aim to support at least 10,000 sports persons by watching their skills live and on TV. Unfortunately, we only support 20, that too in the name of nationalism, not sport.