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Keeping it real

When Sir Allen Stanford arrived at Lords by helicopter and unveiled a pile of cash big enough to quicken the pulse of the average bank robber, he was doing more than simply inaugurating a new sports competition. His visit to the headquarters of English cricket had a polarising effect on the cricket community. His vision, for a competition between ‘his’ team of West Indian All Stars and England, with the victors running off with a the big part of a $20 million cheque, was to be the most valuable team sports event in history.

Stanford is a Texan based in Antigua who had fallen in love with cricket. He saw his Super Series of a way of helping regenerate interest in cricket in the West Indies where the sport’s place at the centre of sporting life has come under threat. Some even believe that its decline was terminal and that Stanford’s massive cash injection should be welcomed with open arms. Elsewhere the notion was received very differently. Most of the media simply hated the idea. The response was largely predictable.

Despite his title, Stanford is a foreigner – an uppity American at that – daring to buy his way into cricket with great piles of wonga and trampling on the values which have underpinned the game down the centuries. Stanford’s plan may have been many things but one thing was for sure; it just wasn’t cricket. Critics – and there were many – argued that while professional sport may be the natural order of things, if the cheque becomes more important that the game itself, we have a problem.

They were ruthless in their criticism of the ECB for allowing its hallowed and historic national team to be sucked into what they considered a financially motivated farce. Unsurprisingly, then, wry smiles were exchanged when the news sparked a bitter – but ultimately resolved – dispute between Stanford and Digicel, the main sponsor of the ‘real’ West Indies team which claimed that the Great Man was hi-jacking their rights by putting out a West Indies team under another name.

But back to the plot… Sky Sports, which broadcast the Stanford Super Series in the UK, joined in the spirit of the event wholeheartedly, promoting the excitement on the suggestion that, in the blink of an eyelid, one great shot or a single cruel error could be the difference not between winning or losing, but between almost $20 million and zilch… nothing… nowt… zero. Editorially they could do nothing else. The money had become the story – and therein lies the rub. In the end of course, the whole thing turned into something of an anti-climax.

Stanford’s West Indian Superstars had taken the whole thing seriously and came out of a six week training camp ready to play. England jetted in, made noises about it being for their country rather than the cash and got their arses kicked in a one-sided game which was embarrassing for cricket in general and for England in particular. In the aftermath there was a perceptible and predictable air of ‘told-you-so’ among the nay-sayers. But that said, one can only imagine there were wild celebrations among the victorious West Indian players who included a bunch of youngsters for whom their bounty was a seriously life-changing sum of money. The entire farrago raises a number of issues, not simply for cricket but sport in general.

Tradition plays an enormous role in sport. From classic horse races to the FA Cup, Olympic Games, World Series and, of course, cricket Test Matches, there are hundreds of years of history and ritual which help define and add value to each event. This is what gives sport a sense of identity and continuity down the years and across generations. But if tradition was, ultimately, all-important sport would never develop. We would still be watching and following the same handful of major events which our parents and grandparents watched. Sport might be rich in tradition but it would stagnant, leaving no room for a business of sport offering real opportunity for innovation and creativity.

This year’s Sports Event Management Conference in London put the spotlight on creativity and innovation by highlighting two examples of a new take on established sports. The first, inevitably, was the Indian Premier League, the Twenty20 cricket competition which has not only changed cricket but also, perhaps, notions of sport in India. Despite its history and traditions, cricket has never been entirely mired in the past. Over the years it has reinvented itself – often under considerable pressure – a number of times to maintain its popularity and relevance in a changing world. The IPL is the latest and certainly most dramatic of these changes, pitched somewhere in the mid-ground between evolution and revolution.

Players from around the world are paid soccer star wages to play for new, city based teams owned by business people and movie stars. It has glitz, glamour and spectacle. In its first year it was a massive hit and deserved its Rushmans Award for Innovation in Sport. The second was A1GP, a motor racing series, now in its fourth season, in which drivers compete in identical Ferrari open wheeled racing cars. The spin here is that each team represents a country. It is billed as the World Cup of Motor Sport, a device which has earned it a legion of fans simply by giving them something to identify with. Simple, perhaps, but within the context of a crowded motor sports calendar, effective. A1GP goes places other motor sports series don’t, allowing it to build significant followings in new countries.

These two very different sports properties have one thing in common beyond the fact that they are very different 21st century takes on traditional sports. Both have been devised first and foremost as sporting competitions. The message delivered by Mike Fordham, of the IMG team which developed the IPL concept and Kenton Elliott, head of marketing at A1GP was that if you get the sport right by putting it at the very heart of the project, you have a shot at success and other things can fall into place. If, on the other hand, the money, the razzmatazz and hoopla come before sporting interests, the reverse is true. You’re dead in the water.

The Stanford Super Series is built on the shifting sands of cash and the currency of any sport in which money becomes more important than real excitement, excellence and character is bound to become devalued sooner or later. Sport need not stagnate. It should welcome great ideas and creativity. But common sense tells us that nothing will work if we lose sight of why sport is important to billions of people around the world.

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