Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Full Coffers, Empty Stands

This post also appears on the author's cricketcountry columns

We witness empty stands.

Scattered applause of the precious few echo off the vast acres of vacant seats. Yet Test matches keep being scheduled on weekdays. The prices of the tickets remain ridiculously high, or are perhaps subsidised in some venues on second thought. The facilities for the spectators continue to be farcical, bordering on the insulting.

Which leads me to a perplexing thought: Are administrators really interested in the number of people who turn up for the matches?

The question, on careful scrutiny under the light of the current day, does not seem all that rhetorical.

In the modern times, we have seen electronic and digital communication play havoc with industries worldwide. The fibre optic cables have extended their far reaching tentacles, circumvented the old fashioned establishments one by one – choked them with communication channels that have flattened the earth and connected the Antipodes with the Alaskans at the rate of the instantaneous.

In such a world, are flesh and blood turnouts really important? Are they not just nice to have garnish around the extensive treasure troves that lie for the taking in the connected world?

There are indications of change every way one chooses to look or listen.

The music industry has been turned upside down in ways that have struck jarring chords. Companies dealing with mobile communications are now tuning themselves to the changing beats and leading the score, while the erstwhile behemoths are swaying to their own death knell in loss incurring music stores.

In the world of the fourth estate, newsprint now occupy the backseat as the power, potential and promise of the electronic media rewrite business plans. There is a very fine line now between bylines and blogs, and with the advent of the citizen journalist and fan-speak, with the consumer turning contributor, the news channels are engaging in a mad rush of introspection and innovation. The thud of the rolled up newspaper on the porch is now all but passé, with the world being downloaded without editorial censorship on seven inch laptop screens and even smaller smart phone handsets.

When we look at the publishing world, brick-and-mortar bookstores with limited shelf space and traditional publishers in their own smug, complacent ivory towers have been rocked and jolted by the advent of electronic readers. Amazon now sells many more Kindle versions than hard copies. Borders have disappeared from the map, and similar monopolising bookstores are fast following suit. Readers are growing increasingly used to packing their 3000 book libraries in handy featherweight six by four inch devices. Who needs crates of shop-soiled stuff shipped across the world to be pulped when inventory can be virtual – reproduced and delivered at the click of a button?

In such a world, does it really matter for organisers whether some paltry thousands turn up to watch the cricket in the giant stadiums?

Unlike in the 20th century, now the cricket watching delights are not restricted to the city hosting the match and its suburbs. Millions of viewers across the world tune in to watch on their television sets, interrupted by local advertisements after every over, wicket and pulled hamstring. Tens of thousands of office workers in cookie cutter cubicles click their way to follow each and every ball on the hundreds of cricket websites while banners ads blink away at the top of the screen and Bet365 beckons tantalisingly from the side pane.

The same millions watch and re-watch the action in their respective time zones, live or recorded as suitable, on the hundreds of television channels, streaming web sites and social media applications, after waiting a brief while for the mandatory advertisement to play itself to conclusion.

In light of all this, the sweet timing of the phenomenon of scheduling Test matches on week days synchronising with the launch of seems more than significant. Why target the insignificant thousands in the ground when one can easily capture the market of hundreds of millions across the World Wide Web? Ask yourself, on which days is it fairly certain that more people will follow the action on web sites streaming or reporting the match than live in the ground?

On one side lie the few thousands of prospective diehards, prepared to brave the baking sun and dirty pouches of water supplied at the grounds to catch the action live. On the other hand is the gateway to the infinite – a viewership unbounded by the archaic limitations of time and space, not checked by the turnstile even if they want to enter the virtual arena again and again ad infinitum.

It is the same reason why Harper Collins looks at capturing the Print on Demand market while pulping last year's bestsellers. This is why Sony ties up with Nokia and Apple creates more music applications for the iPhone. This is also why Rupert Murdoch enterprises are more interested in linking their sites to Facebook and Twitter than wooing local newspaper stores with expensive square feet of space.

Looking at it from the other point of view, it cannot be ruled out that maybe the fans of the day want to watch the matches in the comfort of their air-conditioned cubicles, listening to the expert commentary of a battery of celebrity ex-cricketers, sharing their own views in online discussion forums, updating their Facebook status and tweeting opinions with every major and not so major incident.

The times have changed. The audience is global and infinite across space and time. The local few are limited, and therefore, an eminently expendable fraction.

One may argue that a sport cannot exist without live spectators. However, we live in an era when books sell themselves without bookshops, newspapers are distributed without paper and music pours into the ears without being packaged into cassettes and compact discs.

Perhaps in today’s world, the empty stands reflect not the diminishing popularity of the sport, but the evolution of the cricket enthusiast to fit into the demands of the modern times, behind the digital cover of a connected world.

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