Ruthless multinationals battling for media rights to transmit major sports events are whipping up nationalist aggression and raking in massive profits, says Mike Marqusee
What is the fiercest rivalry in today’s non-stop, televisual carnival of global sport? Rangers v Celtic? Real Madrid v Barcelona? The Yankees v the Red Sox? Could it be the 110-year-old Ashes battle between England and Australia? No. I would submit that none of these compares in emotional intensity, or in social and political resonance, with the cricket rivalry between India and Pakistan. It is today’s salient example of George Orwell’s definition of international sport as ‘war minus the shooting.’ That has made it a honeypot for multinational corporations, satellite television broadcasters and other players in the multibillion pound global sports industry, notably Mark McCormack and his International Management Group, the world’s largest and most aggressive sports marketing conglomerate.
Given the three wars the two countries have fought since independence, the sabre-rattling which is their politicians’ stock-in-trade, the continuing dispute over Kashmir and the mutual threat of nuclear extermination, it is not surprising that their cricket contests are fraught. The rise of the Hindutva forces in India – dedicated to redefining secular, pluralist India as a Hindu state and society – has added a new dimension. In this context, cricket games have become tests of national loyalty. Shiv Sena, a violently anti-Muslim party, objects in principle to Pakistani teams playing cricket on Indian soil; in 1990, its activists succeeded in deterring a scheduled Pakistani tour by vandalising the pitch at Bombay’s Wankhede Stadium.
As a result of rising tension, the two teams were unable to play each other either in India or Pakistan for seven years. They did, however, continue to meet in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, where migrant workers and businessmen from the sub-continent have created a new constituency for the game. These one day matches were telecast in India and Pakistan and, despite Shiv Sena, the fans at home could not get enough of the Indo-Pak rivalry.
For multinational corporations, India-Pakistan cricket was a godsend. No other activity offered such instant access to hearts and minds in the emergent consumer markets in south Asia. In England, cricket is seen as hidebound and is sponsored by banks and insurance companies. In India and Pakistan, it is trendy and sexy and is sponsored by soft drink, cigarette, car and motorbike manufacturers.
Then, thanks to the World Cup, the two teams finally met last year in the sub-continent. India and Pakistan were co-hosts, with Sri Lanka (the eventual champions), of this event – the most commercialised in cricket’s history. Politicians, administrators and businessmen boasted that the tournament epitomised the new economic policy of ‘globalisation.’ They could not allow the Hindutva fanatics to raise doubts about their commitment to ensuring stable conditions and a ‘level playing field’ for foreign investors. The organisers cleverly drew up a schedule which denied Bombay, the erstwhile capital of south Asian cricket but now Shiv Sena’s stronghold, a quarter or semi-final tie. Thus the two teams came face to face in the quarter final in Bangalore, the centre of India’s booming software industry.
The atmosphere at Chinnaswamy Stadium (which was to host the controversial Miss World contest a few months later) was the most charged I have ever encountered at a sporting event.
The stadium was packed (India has at least seven cricket grounds with capacities in excess of 50,000; England has none). Tickets had been hoarded and touted at five times their face value. Tens of thousands of VIP passes and complimentary tickets had been distributed to politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats, police, government departments and multinational corporations. Only a handful of seats was placed on public sale. Disappointed fans who had queued overnight, were dispersed from the ticket counters by police swinging lathis (long bamboo truncheons).
In India, Honda declared: ‘Eleven heroes. 900 million people. One wish.’ In Pakistan, Shell’s orange logo appeared with a new caption: ‘The Shell standard – flying for Pakistan.’
Thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s satellite television empire, the contest was broadcast to the Asian diaspora in Europe, North America, Africa and south-east Asia. The morning of the match, multinational corporations placed huge adverts in the daily newspapers in India and Pakistan. In India, Honda declared: ‘Eleven heroes. 900 million people. One wish.’ In Pakistan, Shell’s orange logo appeared with a new caption: ‘The Shell standard – flying for Pakistan.’
At first, the Indian crowd welcomed the Pakistanis, and even applauded their performance in the field. Among the hundreds of banners and placards (banned at English cricket grounds) a few called for ‘cricket for peace’ and ‘secularism’, but others chortled over ‘Pakistani grilled chicken’ and made anti-Muslim jibes. As the floodlights burned into the night and the Indians marched to a rare victory over their neighbours, the home fans became more grudging towards the Pakistanis. By the end of the match they were braying at every Pakistani failure and booing the 38-year-old Pakistani batsman Javed Miandad, one of the greats of modern cricket, as he walked off the field into retirement.
That night, the streets of Bangalore (as well as Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras), were choked with celebrants. The air was filled with patriotic incantations – Bharat mata ki jai! Hindustan zindaband! – shouted by well-heeled young men on flashy motorbikes. The frenzy seemed inappropriate for what was, after all, only a quarter final victory. But what was being celebrated was not so much Indian victory as Pakistani defeat, and in a political climate soured by the rise of right-wing chauvinism, that counted for more than winning the tournament. So the World Cup, billed as a celebration of south Asian co-operation and economic and cultural globalisation, ended up as a showcase for bitter geopolitical and religious divisions.
That did not make sub-continental cricket any less attractive to the movers and shakers in the market place of global sport. Belligerence, it seems, is big business. After the Cup, the International Management Group, the world’s largest sports marketing conglomerate, held a press conference in Delhi.
Flanked by the senior Indian and Pakistani cricket administrators, an American, Mark McCormack (IMG’s founder, president, chairman and Chief Executive Officer) announced the inauguration of a new international cricket competition, the ‘Friendship Cup’, a series of one day internationals between India and Pakistan, to be staged annually – in Canada [and later called the Sahara Cup – ed]. The matches would be directly administered and promoted by the IMG, which would also produce and sell the television coverage.
McCormack prophesied that ‘cricket will have a great place in the hearts of north American people.’ Really? After the press conference, an IMG official conceded, ‘The real market is in south Asia. And it has only begun to be tapped.’ The reality behind the Friendship Cup is that 9.30am in Toronto is 6pm in south Asia – prime time. As long as the satellite link was functioning, whether or not a single soul in North America showed any interest in the cricket, the new Cup would generate huge profits from television rights and spin-offs. The principal irony of the Friendship Cup was that it could not be held in either India or Pakistan. But what is happening to Indian and Pakistani cricket may be no more than a dramatic example of global trends. Both Euro 96 and the Atlanta Olympics were disfigured by mindless nationalism, multinational sponsorship, exorbitant ticket prices and the corporate hospitality industry which IMG pioneered.
Media moguls and multinational sponsors have appropriated our popular culture, and sold it back to us, packaged according to their needs and priorities, not ours. Sports fans may be offered a welter of choice via satellite television, but they are mere atomised consumers, denied any collective or democratic voice. Has the left anything to say about the future development of global sport? Can we afford to abandon this vast swathe of daily life to market forces?
Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’s senior foreign corespondent, has argued that the global spread of American popular culture is a harbinger of world peace: ‘People who eat Macdonald’s do not fight wars against each other.’ The India-Pakistan rivalry indicates the contrary. Market forces, far from eradicating national boundaries, may reinforce them where they do most damage – in people’s heads.
Mike Marqusee’s most recent book is War Minus the Shooting: a Journey Through South Asia During Cricket’s World Cup, (Heinemann, £12.99)
Profile: International Management Group