Columns, Sports, Writing

Decoding the auction

The IPL auction is over but the after-effects continue to reverberate. Why did Dhoni get what he did and what about Ponting? Have we forgiven Symonds and have we forgotten McGrath? Is such commercialisation good for the game? Are we creating a new source of identity other than country? These are just a few of the many fundamental and not-so-fundamental questions this new development poses to us. It is as if through the guise of the IPL, the market has moved into its next phase of development in India and we are struggling to cope with the new reality.

At the heart of the IPL story, lay the public auction of players. Never before has sport seen such a transparent, such a vividly naked exhibition of the power of the market. At one level, it was exceedingly fair and at another excessively commercial. The auction was an inspired symbol of what the new league represented. It brought all interested parties simultaneously to the table and asked them to demonstrate their preferences in full public view.

The IPL auction reversed a long held Indian view of the auction. The “neelami’’ has always been seen from the seller’s perspective representing the dread-filled culmination of a doomed effort to save the family’s honour. We have grown up seeing the auction as a moral science lesson, of what can happen to us if we don’t eschew greed and too much ambition. The IPL auction is, among other things, a sign that as a country, we have moved from being implicit sellers of our past legacies to being buyers of an imagined future.

The auction intensifies the conversion of desire into acquisition through the device of an ever escalating price. It creates a market hothouse where everything is accelerated. Price becomes the mercury that zips up through the thermometer of the bid. The idea of price is no longer equal to a settling down of perceived value; it is instead a fleet-footed means of conquest. For ownership in an auction comes as a victory in a championship where money secures the triumph.

The auction works particularly well when what it sells is unique, for then different people place different value on the same thing quite effortlessly. The price becomes a sign, in the sense of what Auroux called, something that means something else for someone. The price in an auction does not represent the intrinsic value of things, it is instead a value given to the value you place on things as a bidder. In that sense, the auction uses price as a tool to explore the nature and structure of your desire for things. It forces us to ask what we really want and how badly we want it.

In that sense the auction is much more about the bidder than the object being acquired. The auction generates a wealth of data on who values what how much. Of course, the auction with its pressure cooker simulation of a hand-to-hand combat speaks to another motivation too. The urge to own and the urge to win an auction often operate as two parallel motivations. The primal need to win and to deny the other person victory often propels bids beyond all boundaries of logic. Much has been written about the winner’s curse, the taste of cardboard in your mouth when the adrenalin dries and you are left with an overpriced vase you won. Ditto for Symonds?

The IPL uses the auction to celebrate the legitimacy of the market. It takes notions we value the most, viz national pride and the purity of a much-loved sport, and plays with it in public. It shows us without artifice the sight of the wellheeled and the glamourpuffed sitting in their little teams and buying athletes who represent a notion of purity and perfection that are so rare in the world we live in today. It overwhelms players with money and creates a consensus around greed. It promises that everyone will win and, more importantly, that victory will be visible to all. If earlier we suspected that money could buy anything, we now saw it live on television and what’s more, we clapped.

No wonder it provokes debate and introspection, celebration and recrimination. The market is shedding its stealthy camouflage and is strutting about in cocky pride. That’s very good news for some and a catastrophe for others. In either case, something has changed decisively and there is no going back.