City City Bang Bang, Columns

The death of sport?

In no country in the world, in any sport of any note, do players get sold through a public auction like they do in the IPL. Nowhere else is the spectacle of players getting lavished with riches beyond their dreams or getting rejected in a sullen heartbeat covered live on television. Nowhere else do general interest mainstream news channels spend two whole days covering an event of this kind, even when they do not have the live feed. Nowhere else do the owners of the teams get such mileage and wield such visible, almost feudal power.

It is time to acknowledge that something extremely significant is happening in India. Perhaps it is time to look at the IPL not merely as the future of cricket but to ask if it points to the future of sport itself? In a short period of three years, the IPL has made its players the second richest in the world and remember that all of this money comes from India, which is a much smaller market than its more developed European & American counterparts. And it has done so by conceptualising sport in a new way.

All forms of sport involve arbitrary rules and functionally useless activity. By locating sport outside life, we construct a theatre where, unconstrained by the expediencies that making our way in world impose upon us, we enact the idea of perfection. Sport idealises civilisation, as it allows us to strive to outdo ourselves, for a purpose that is as arbitrary as kicking a ball into a net. And while sport has always attracted material rewards, the essential purpose of sport has never been to generate wealth.

This is where the IPL has changed the rules. Unlike its western counterparts in other richer sports, the IPL has expressly placed the interests of the team owners over that of the players. It is striking that IPL is the only sporting format where the player has no say in which club he wants to play for. The player sells not merely his ability but his right over himself as a sentient being with a mind of his own. And he does so not so much to the team he ends up joining, but very visibly to the motley bunch of owners that bid for him and govern his life from that point onwards. The fact that the IPL shuffled its teams three years into the tournament, when all common sense would have dictated that in a fledgling format, fan loyalties towards teams would come only when there was a sense of stability around the players. But clearly that is of little interest to the people who run this game; their interest lies in the value created by the spectacle of frequent change. At a more covert level, it keeps the owners in charge and establishes very clearly that everyone else is expendable.

While mixing entertainment with sport is not a new idea, in most other cases in the world, entertainment has been added to the sport in order to make it more attractive for the viewers. In the case of the IPL, the format has been designed with entertainment at its heart. The T20 format has been integrated into a larger package of entertainment that features cheerleaders, film stars, celebrities and theatre. The auctions, the post-match parties, the co-option of everyone involved, be it former cricketers, commentators, administrators and media are part of the original design of the tournament, not afterthoughts.

What we might be seeing is the death of sport as we have known it and the birth of a mutant version, one that is firmly rooted in the world of entertainment. Why should sport die in India when arguably it hasn’t even been fully born here? Perhaps the answer lies in the simultaneous nature of changes taking place in India. The combination of media and market, and the uncritical acceptance of material benchmarks as a sign of progress have together unleashed a pattern of development unlike other markets where these forces have been operating gradually over a much larger period of time. Just as our mainstream news channel behave in a way unlike anywhere else in the world in the uncritical manner in which they have embraced the primacy of ratings, so too in cricket, we have accepted popularity of viewership as the only sign of a sport’s success.

The other way of reading what is happening is to argue that far from sport dying as a result of IPL, the fact the IPL does not correspond to so many of the implicit codes of sport, is a sign that this format and this way of envisioning sport may itself be a transient fad. After all, it is very easy, if you have the money, to make any sport more entertaining. Add a few dancing girls in short skirts, have a few film stars arrive at the stadium in a helicopter and give the players new haircuts and startling tattoos. But it is almost impossible to turn any entertainment, or for that matter anything at all, into sport.

What makes something a sport watched, argued, celebrated and wept over by millions is a mysterious alignment of instinct, history, cultural politics, accessibility and accident. The number of activities deemed to be entertainment run into millions, while the number of activities accepted by sport and followed by any significant number of people can be counted on one’s fingers. Sport is vastly entertaining but it is much more than a format of entertainment. Sports generates money, but it is much more than a financial engine.

The battle between these two competing visions of the future of sport is being played out right here in India. If the IPL succeeds in its present form, it will challenge not just other formats of cricket, but the very idea of sport. Consider it, for what it is worth, as India’s gift to the world.

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