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 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 the ultimate honour for a sportsman/woman, and among countries with deep political rivalries, sports matches acquire a subtext of war.
However, labour and economic statistics point to a different reality. The US Bureau of Labor’s publishes detailed stats regarding employment in America, including the number of actual professional athletes in the US. About 12,000 people make a living playing sports in the US. This only counts actual athletes, and 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, an amazing statistic.
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 some interesting 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 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.
For truly becoming a cricketing nation, India should aim to support at least 10,000 cricketers by watching their skills live and on TV. Unfortunately, we only support 20, that too in the name of nationalism, not sport. We need many more cricket leagues and much better viewership for Ranji games.