The cost of empty stadiums

Published December 20, 2021
Haider Ali watches the ball after playing a shot during the first Twenty20 international cricket match between Pakistan and West Indies at the National Stadium in Karachi on December 13.—AFP
Haider Ali watches the ball after playing a shot during the first Twenty20 international cricket match between Pakistan and West Indies at the National Stadium in Karachi on December 13.—AFP

As over 87,000 people watched in person, Pakistan won its first, and only (as yet), ICC Cricket World Cup in 1992, a win so cherished that the captain of the team eventually was elected to lead the nation.

The country is cricket crazed, no one doubts that. So why then have the stands been so empty during the Pakistan vs West Indies series? A similar question was raised by Wasim Akram on Twitter which was responded with nearly 2,500 comments and 16,000 likes.

A barrage of responses from wait times, the barriers to purchasing tickets, lack of marketing hype, a Covid-depleted West Indies team and weekday matches were the responses. A cricket fan also bemoaned the lack of Karachites in Pakistan’s playing 11. “How can a city this big not produce one cricketer fit to represent his country in his home town,” he bemoaned.

Popularity

People just did not seem as interested as they were last month during the T20 world cup. The hype did not carry forward it seems.

Ratings account for the number of people watching the match. According to data shared by TV rating provider Media Logic, the average viewership of the Pakistan vs West Indies series in urban areas was 6.5 per cent on PTV Sports, peaking at 9.5pc for the final. (Maximum rating is the highest number of people watching during any 30-minute slot during a match.)

A simple dollar comparison between the two bat and ball obsessed nations is this: an IPL match can garner an estimated $2.63m while an international three-day match in Pakistan can garner a maximum of $0.33m as revenue from tickets

Across the recent International Cricket Council (ICC) world cup tournament, the average was 9.9pc with the peak being 17.1pc in Pakistan vs Australia semi-final. The joyful Pakistan vs India match’s average rating was 9.6pc with a peak of 12.7pc. Even the small fish matches of Nambia and Scotland garnered an average rating of 8.1pc and 7.3pc respectively on PTV Sports.

Keeping aside that a world cup event garners more traction than a bilateral series, given that it was held in Pakistan, the general lack of interest coming at the heels of the majestic (albeit ultimately heartbreaking) performance of the team in the world cup is surprising. It speaks volumes about the lack of marketing efforts by the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Declining to comment or answer questions, a Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) official forwarded COO Salman Naseer’s press conference in response. While admitting that there was room for improvement in marketing of the series to fill the stands, the harried-looking Mr Naseer defended the decision of weekday matches. “The schedule was set up in consultation with various law enforcement agencies and bodies including the National Command Operation Centre,” he said. The one day internationals (ODI) would have been held over this weekend had covid not made it impossible.

Stadium revenue

India’s (and the world’s) largest stadium — Narendra Modi Stadium — in Ahmedabad has a capacity of 132,000 compared to the roughly 30,000-40,000 capacity of National Stadium. Arguably, India’s population is roughly four times that of Pakistan but in terms of cities, Karachi’s official tally of 15 million is almost twice that of Ahmedabad’s estimated 8m.

About 3m people applied for the 650,000 tickets available across the ICC ODI world cup held in England in 2019, according to a Forbes article. The India vs Pakistan match was the most requested game, even more so than the final. Secondary market prices started at $500 and ran into thousands of dollars, the article said.

Pakistan has made cricket affordable. Seats in the general enclosure are for Rs250, first-class enclosure are for Rs500, premium enclosures are for Rs1,000 and VIP enclosure is for Rs2,000. Assuming a capacity of 30,000 at the lowest price, the minimum revenue is Rs7.5 million and the maximum is Rs60m. This translates to Rs22.5-180m over the three-match tournament that the West Indies team had to postpone because of Covid cases, assuming filled stands.

One calculation of Indian Premier League (IPL) tickets are as follows: assuming a capacity of 40,000 and the average ticket cost of INR 5,000 (the price of IPL tickets are not the same for all the teams — the tickets start at INR500 for Kolkata Knight Riders and go up to tens of thousands), a single IPL match can garners INR 200m.

A simple dollar comparison between the two bat and ball obsessed nations is this: an IPL match can garner an estimated $2.63m while an international three-day match in Pakistan can garner a max of $0.33m as revenue from tickets.

A Gallup Gillani poll indicated that 70pc of Pakistanis believe that cricket is akin to patriotism. Investing in better measures and a streamlined process to improve earnings seems a relatively easy way to garner bigger bucks from crickets. Bigger in-stadium crowds also open increase revenue through merchandising and snacks.

At the peak of hopelessness, cricket fans wondered whether they would be able to see a cricket match played in their home country. With the Pakistan Super League and upcoming Australia tour planned by PCB, the dream has become as big a reality as Pakistan knocking the socks of the Indian team in the recent T20 tournament.

While the country may not have money to ensure food for the hungry, much less sports, the least that can be done is to facilitate cricket fans to be able to watch the series in person. Can scheduling matches on weekends and ensuring a smooth process for purchasing tickets really be challenging for a game that is opium for the masses? Let us hope that when (if) the West Indies returns in early June 2022 for the remaining of the matches, the team will play in packed stadiums.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 20th, 2021

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