Wonks, waiters and waffle: welcome to the tech-crazy world of modern cricket

Barney Ronay





Sport Racing

Yes, I went to the lavishly staged ICC Cricket Matters conference in Mumbai so that you didn’t have to. And it was pretty much what you’d expect, even, perhaps, a little more fundamentally disorientating. The conference was full of interesting content. It was presented by serious people who really do have a say in how cricket, and indeed every other sport you like, is going to be processed, consumed and violently reconfigured in the next few vital years. Pretending I was a mercurial tech entrepreneur with a really great idea for an app seemed more venueappropriate, less draggy, than being a sports hack. In the event nobody asked me anything at all. But really the point of going was to listen, to overhear the powerbrokers in their natural powerbroker habitat. I wanted to know about Brands Love Fans in the Stands, and Cricket Matters to Meta and Innovation at Play: Part 1 – The ICC NIUM Hackathon. I wanted to understand the world of eyeballs, the digital dissection of sport, the things we feel happening and interpret as threats to elements of value and existing structures, but which are always happening somewhere else, never actually in the room. Nobody tells the truth about this stuff. English sport is torn between agonisingly parochial concerns and greed-driven schemes that can’t ever admit to being greed-driven schemes, which must always hide behind weasel words about heritage and respect for fans and sporting culture. We have Gianni Infantino pretending to be football-jesus. We have ethicswashing and equality-washing. So the changes in the basic fabric of sport happen out of sight and half-baked, spun to minimise blowback. But not in here, among the rainmakers, those who are effectively overseeing how sport is being sliced and repurposed and pulped into a streaming product, where growth is always just a good thing, and new markets the whole point. So we filed into a huge panelled room on the ninth floor of an elite-tier Mumbai hotel, decked with thrilling blue lights, twinkly chandeliers and a stage at the front for the panels of heavy-hitters. Wonks and waiters tended to tables packed with delegates, but there was above all a sense of urgency. This room will shape your sport. It has sharp edges. Brands Love Fans featured change-makers from Mastercard, Coca-cola and DP World. They filed out to a blast of I’m So Excited by the Pointer Sisters, which was a little jarring as it only got to the words “I want to love you, feel you, wrap myself around you” before the music cut and everyone sat down. Who are these people? They’re the ICC’S commercial partners, and global sport’s partners, people who have a tangible input into what will be played and how it will look. You can have all the meetings and reports and root and branch reviews. Money talks and bullshit walks. This is the money part. So what do they want? More visibility. New markets, always. They seem obsessed with driving the experience on to a six-inch screen, which is what most of the world has in its pocket. They want less bilateral cricket, more big ICC events, more franchise. They want more prominence in the basic architecture, the dream not just of having a logo on the screen, but of “engagement”, of surfing your passion, owning it. This is where the possibilities of the digital revolution will be shaped in sport, where the decision of what parts to junk and what parts to over-expose are ultimately influenced. We can worry about heritage, values, sporting stuff. The contorted physical product we end up with will be carved out by these forces. And yes there was some high-grade waffle, talk of fully-parallel consumer experiences, of the shift at this World Cup from linear viewing to non-linear and hybrid. Someone said: “Cricket adjacency leads to very passionate eyeballs.” Someone said: “There are no discrete spaces any more, only overlapping dimensions.” Someone said: “We don’t want to go out and boil the ocean.” The World Cup trophy sat there at the front listening to all this. But there were also parts that made you jump. Basically everyone is convinced everything is going to change very quickly. “What tech is doing to every sector is what it will do to sport. It will change the very definition of what the sport is.” “Sport is going to change more drastically in the next three to four years than it has in the last 50, in terms of how we consume it and in terms of who we consider to be a fan.” Oh wow. They said it out loud. That sense of irreversible change is not in your head. And these are the people charged with making it happen. There was some waffle about diversity, and even better an insight into why that waffle happens. “Diversity, equality and inconclusiveness is a big part of the gen Z, the millennials. This is why brands need to bring in elements to address this.” Wait. I thought you actually meant it. The best part was in effect an explanation of why India projects cricket as it does. Indian politics wants these big global brands to invest and cricket is the driver, directly powering that consumer economy. “There is massive unlock still to be done,” the Coke guy said contentedly. And India is a happy, hungry, confident country in so many ways. Consumption and brand worship is an element of that confidence. Cricket has become an extension of both things. There was some interesting talk about how cricket can feel typecast as a subcontinental sport, a sense of mild frustration that England and Australia might not be pulling their weight. Small talk at the interval provided confirmation that the Hundred (“Is that … dead now?”) is something of a joke in this company. It was hard to avoid a creeping suspicion that nobody actually knows what the future of sport, or indeed all forms of human connection, actually look like. This is all potential energy and new forms; and it’s entirely up for grabs.