Case Study: Cricket Goes Bowling for Dollars

A fast, colorful new form of the old English game is winning fans, and billions of dollars

The sport of cricket dates back more than 400 years, yet few matches have been more game-changing than the contest between the Bangalore Royal Challengers and the Kolkata Knight Riders last April. Instead of waiting days for the final run or wicket, the 55,000 fans were treated to a shortened version that was over in less than three hours. Forget cricket's storied past. An international cast that includes Bollywood stars, corporate giants, and a Texan-born billionaire is betting that this new format is cricket's future.

Indeed, backers of Twenty20 cricket, as it is called, predict the sport could overtake soccer in global popularity and revenue. Ridiculous? Not necessarily. The Indian Premier League, which began its first-ever tournament with the Bangalore-Kolkata game, drew 50% more TV viewers than the soap operas, reality shows, and movies that its matches replaced—plus roughly $1 billion from Sony (SNY) and World Sport Group, a News Corp. (NWS) joint venture, for 10-year broadcast rights.

Twenty20 cricketers are becoming wealthy celebrities, too. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, captain of the Chennai Super Kings, raked in $1.5 million for just over six weeks on the field this year, making him the new league's top earner. In November, others will do even better. The winner of a game between all-star teams from the Caribbean and England will receive $20 million, the largest prize in the history of group sports for a single contest. That works out to $1 million for each of the 11 starters, plus a bundle for the rest of the squad. "Cricket has taken its place in the entertainment industry," says Kevin Roberts, editorial director of SportBusiness, a London-based media outfit.

Still, the sport has a lot of history to overcome. The British brought cricket with them to India, Australia, and much of the rest of their empire. But the game remained popular only in England and the former colonies because it is difficult to understand and, to many, just plain boring. In its most traditional form, national matches play out over five full days, with breaks for lunch and afternoon tea. In the 1960s and 1970s, organizers in Britain and Australia began experimenting with one-day games to appeal to a broader audience. But more recently, even that began to seem stodgy.

Twenty20, which came out of England in 2003, compresses the game further. Each team gets 20 "overs"—an over is cricketese for six balls per batter—which crams all the action into three hours or less. On the field, razzmatazz rules. Pregame activities include skimpily clad dancers and laser light shows. Players wear brightly colored uniforms rather than cricket "whites." Batsmen typically walk onto the field amid blaring pop music. The hitting of sixes, cricket's equivalent of home runs, is nonstop: In that IPL opening game, Brendon McCullum of New Zealand smashed 13 sixes and scored a record 158 runs for Kolkata. Twenty20, says Harsha Bogle, an Indian TV commentator and consultant to the IPL's Mumbai Indians, "is tailor-made for a new generation."

It is certainly grabbing India, already cricket's biggest market. Indian actor and TV game-show host Shahrukh Khan paid $75 million for IPL's Knight Riders, while 33-year-old actress Preity Zinta joined a partnership that acquired the Mohali Kings XI Punjab for $76 million, injecting the game with more sex appeal. A third of TV viewers of last spring's IPL tournament were women, compared with 10% for traditional matches, and Twenty20's faster pace seems to be scoring with the PlayStation generation as well.

Little surprise, then, that in mid-September, ESPN Star Sports, a joint venture between Walt Disney (DIS) and News Corp., topped bidders from Dubai by paying $975 million for commercial rights over the next 10 years to the Twenty20 Champions League, an annual world tournament that India will host starting in December. "The heady mix of Bollywood and cricket is simply unstoppable," says Seamus O'Brien, World Sport's chief executive.

Battling it out

Perhaps more exciting to its backers, Twenty20 could help cricket crack new markets. The Chinese Cricket Assn., for instance, aims to have 60,000 cricketers by 2012 and 150,000 by 2020. Meanwhile, local governments in Italy, where 33 teams battle it out in a three-division league, have begun providing space for Asian immigrants who want to play the game.

If Allen Stanford has his way, the game may take off in the Americas. Stanford, 58, a fifth-generation Texan, owns Stanford Financial Group, a financial-services conglomerate that manages more than $50 billion in assets. Now a resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands and a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda, Stanford says he's prepared to spend much of his fortune to push Twenty20 cricket. Already, by assembling his own team and sponsoring inter-island tournaments—efforts that have cost him $80 million altogether—he's spurring a cricket renaissance in the Caribbean. The $20 million purse to the winner of his Nov. 1 contest in Antigua between his Stanford all-star team and England, he hopes, will only add momentum.

Stanford thinks he can even win over the U.S. Last January, he spent $3.5 million to test the market in Ft. Collins, Colo. Like most American towns, Ft. Collins had no cricket field, and its 130,000 residents had no interest in the sport. "Most people thought cricket was an insect or a dart-board game," he admits.

That changed after Stanford began advertising cricket on billboards and leaflets. His team flew in cricket coaches to explain the game. He also sent players to bars to talk up the sport and explain the rules, and did a deal with the local cable TV company to broadcast his inter-island tournament then under way in the Caribbean.

By the end of the six-week long tournament, to Stanford's delight, many locals seemed interested, driving to public venues where the games were shown live. Though some came for the pre-match live bands and free food and T-shirts, 90% stuck around for the competitions themselves. Others turned up just 15 minutes before to watch. "We proved that in a short period of time the Twenty20 game can be easily understood and digested and people can get excited about it," he says. "I hope that in under 10 years, cricket, played in the Twenty20 format, can be the dominant world team sport." Even if it doesn't rise to that level, cricket clearly is no longer a game of the past.

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