ANALYSIS: Is ICC World Cup really ‘world’s third-biggest sporting event’?

Plans to reduce teams will hit already-limited allure towards the sport
Published March 6, 2015

ANALYSIS: Is ICC World Cup really ‘world’s third-biggest sporting event’?

Umaid Wasim

WHEN the International Cricket Council (ICC) announced the new broadcast features ahead of its World Cup last month, it termed its showpiece tournament as the “world’s third-biggest sporting event”.

No prizes for guessing the top two, though: the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup. But cricket isn’t the only sport that bills its World Cup as number three in the world. Rugby and Athletics are also vying for that much-coveted bronze medal in the mega event race.

The issue of the scale of events has been the subject of debate recently with the World Rugby (WR) regularly claiming they occupy third place in the list.

Plans to reduce teams will hit already-limited allure towards the sport

And so last year, sports business analysis firm Sportcal began its Global Sports Impact (GSI) project. It saw more than 200 experts asked to come up with a list of the most important factors in ranking an event — tickets sold, tourists attracted, media impact and so on — which were then applied to 700 events over a 12-year period.

The 2012 London Olympics topped the list ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil but the 2012 Paralympics pipped the 2011 Rugby World Cup to third place. The 2011 ICC World Cup in the sub-continent didn’t even make the top ten.

Taking television coverage as an example, the London Games in which 204 nations took part saw live telecast in 220 countries. The 32-team FIFA World Cup was broadcast live in 219 territories and the Rugby World Cup, which saw 20 teams compete, saw television coverage in 207 countries.

In its announcement, the ICC said this year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand would be beamed live in 200 territories. That should see the extravaganza make the GSI top-10 list when they are announced next year. But their aspirations would be hit by the fact that in more than half of those 200 territories, live pictures would be through Internet streaming.

So what about the ICC claims then?

“The organisers of major sports events seek to drive up the value of their property rights by making claims about the scale, significance, reach, or economic impact of events,” Professor Simon Shibli, the head of Sports Industry Research Centre at the Sheffield Hallam University in UK – the institute which acted as informal academic advisers to Sportcal, told Dawn on Thursday.

“There seems to be something of a competition to claim the status of the world’s ‘third biggest’ events behind the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.

“More often than not the claims made are little more than rhetoric designed to justify public sector investment in an event, to attract sponsors or to entice spectators to attend.”

Shibli admits the cricket World Cup is a major sporting event but that it could top the list of the longest sporting events — not the biggest.

“By any conventional measurements the ICC World Cup is a major sporting event,” he adds. “However, it does not feature the most teams; it won’t attract the highest number of spectators at grounds or on television; and it is of little relevance outside the Commonwealth.

“It would be only the most optimistic of advocates who said that it was third in the pantheon of sporting events behind the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.

“If there are to be any claims about the ICC World Cup, then at 44 days’ duration it is one of the world’s longest sporting event.”

At 44 days, the 14-team cricket World Cup beats its rugby counterpart — with this year’s edition to be played in England in September — by a day.

And the longevity of the former comes because of rather unsporting reasons — as noted cricket writer Scyld Berry put it, it’s because the game is “in the hands of businessmen”.

That is because if defending champions India were to go out early, like in the 2007 rendition of the tournament in the Caribbean, the World Cup would lose its sheen — and the affection of India’s 1.2 billion people.

When the ICC tried a new format in the 16-team World Cup of 2007 — one that resembled the FIFA World Cup, the event whose sheer competitiveness saw defending champions Spain knocked out in the group stage of the 2014 edition or holders Italy being knocked out in the preliminary stage of the 2010 event — India and Pakistan were knocked out in the group stage, leaving unfulfilled the aspirations of another installment of arch-rivals’ clash in the quarter-final.

The duo’s premature exit led to most of the world’s cricket fans switching off their television sets, a disaster for the Indian broadcasters who lost millions of dollars in advertising revenues.

So the format for this year’s World Cup will see 42 meaningless games in the pool stages followed by seven important ones — the quarter-finals, semis and the final of March 29 — and is tailor-made for the top teams to progress from their respective groups, thus keeping intact the audience that is hooked to the sport.

“India, Pakistan and Bangladesh account for 23% of the world’s population but have never qualified for the finals of the FIFA World Cup and won only 0.6% of medals awarded at the London Games,” Shibli says, delving into the importance of keeping those fans in for the ICC.

“For these nations where success in football and Olympic sports is modest, cricket has immense sporting and cultural significance.

“It is perhaps no surprise then that most of the reach of the ICC World Cup will be felt in the subcontinent whilst in the rest of the world the impact is diluted by interest in football, rugby, tennis and the forthcoming Formula 1 season.”

The length of tournament has been criticised by players, coaches and cricketing experts alike. And the ICC admitted it’s mulling reducing the number of teams in the 2019 edition of the World Cup to 10 teams, which will of course include all the heavyweights and reduce the ‘associates’. That would, however, be a backward step on ICC’s part, which pledged to take the game beyond cricket’s traditional strongholds ahead of the tournament.

On Monday, when WR announced the host cities for the 2019 edition of the Rugby World Cup to be held in Japan, tournament chairman Bernard Lapasset said the first World Cup in Asia “will be an important milestone for us [WR] as we continue to make good on our commitment to grow the global game”.

Athletics governing body IAAF, meanwhile, is hoping the bigger and better World Athletics Championship in Doha the same year, will catapult them to the number three spot.

In contrast the ICC, whose mantra is to create “a bigger, better, global game”, is going the other way. In wake of that, its claims of holding the “world’s third-biggest sporting event” seem like a mistimed hook shot to no man’s land.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2015

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