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The recent sponsorship by NEOM of the Indian Premier League franchise team, the Rajasthan Royals, emphasizes a further change in the landscape of cricket sponsorship.

It is unclear when sponsorship started in the game, but it could be argued that the waiving of excise duties on beer sales at cricket matches in the mid-17th century represented sponsorship.

One highly enterprising example occurred in 1861/62 in Australia. Spiers & Pond, a Melbourne catering firm that owned the Cafe de Paris, wished to raise its profile. Cricket was attracting large crowds and the owners sought to capitalize on this by inviting England’s national team on an all-expenses-paid tour of Australia. It cost them $15,000, (equal to more than $200,000 today) out of which each player was paid $210, plus travel expenses.

The first match commenced on Jan. 1, 1862, with an estimated crowd of at least 15,000. Another 10,000 fans watched from the hill overlooking the ground. This level of support allowed Spiers & Pond to recoup their entire investment in the first game. The England team then played 10 further matches, the last on March 24, 1862, before setting sail home on a two-month-long journey.

Given this commercial success, tours of Australia by teams from England continued. In 1891/92 Lord Sheffield headed the English team to play three Test matches. An aristocrat and member of parliament with a deep sense of public duty, his consuming interest was cricket. At his stately home in the south of England a cricket ground was built to rival any in England. On five occasions between 1884 and 1896, the Australian touring teams played their first fixture at Sheffield Park.

During the 1891/92 tour he donated a trophy for £150 ($190) to be played for between the Australian colonies so as to encourage competition. This may qualify as largesse rather than sponsorship. Nevertheless, it may well be the oldest named trophy in cricket. It drew ire in 1999 when the Australian Cricket Board, in looking for additional revenue, entered into a sponsorship arrangement with Pura Milk. In his book, Malcolm Speed, the chair of the ACB, revealed that the council’s income was made up of one-third each of gate receipts, broadcasting revenue and sponsorship. After eight years of Pura Milk, the new sponsor, Weet-Bix agreed that the name should revert to Sheffield Shield. It has remained so ever since.

This season’s final is being played between Western Australia and Tasmania in Perth and started on March 21. Western Australia is looking to claim a third successive Shield trophy. However, their hopes have been hit by the absence of Cameron Green and Mitchell Marsh, who have been granted permission to play in the IPL. In itself, this is controversial, as participation in domestic red ball cricket is considered secondary to participation in the IPL, especially in a T20 World Cup year.

All of this is a far cry from when sponsorship really began to impact professional cricket. In 1965, cigarette advertisements were banned from British television. This denied tobacco manufacturers access to their largest advertising channel. In response, they turned to sports sponsorship as a marketing strategy. John Player & Sons sponsored motor racing, motor cycling, tennis and cricket between 1969 and 1986, reaching consumers on a mass scale and creating an acceptable image for the company. Another tobacco company, Benson & Hedges, sponsored a 50-over competition between 1972 and 2002, marking one of cricket’s longest sponsorship deals. It ended when tobacco advertising was banned.

An insurance company, Friends Provident, took over from Benson & Hedges shortly after Cornhill Insurance ended a 28-year-long sponsorship of the England men’s team. For a time, insurance companies were major sponsors of cricket. The inaugural World Cup in 1975 was sponsored by Prudential Insurance, headquartered in London, at a time when England remained the epicenter of the game. In 1987, in a sign of shifting power, sponsorship transitioned to Reliance Industries of India. Benson & Hedges sponsored the 1992 World Cup, followed, in 1996, by another tobacco company, Wills. In 1999, the game’s governing body, the International Cricket Council, introduced a new permanent trophy, the ICC Cricket World Cup Trophy.

Beneath that banner lie myriad sponsors and partners, testimony to cricket’s ability to provide a base for organizations to dramatically increase name or brand awareness. Among the 18 sponsors and partners are two companies within the automobile industry, Nissan and MRF Tyres. The media and communications sector is represented by Disney-owned Star Sports, a situation that will change with the agreement between Reliance Industries and Disney to merge their digital streaming television assets in India. The growing involvement of organizations in the Gulf region is represented by the UAE’s flag carrier, Emirates, and Aramco and DP World, which also is the title sponsor for the ILT20 franchise league.

At this year’s ILT20 and also at the ACC Challenger Cup in Thailand, advertising appeared prominently — on the sightscreens in Bangkok — and featured two companies thought to be associated with illegal betting. There is growing concern that collaboration is increasing between illegal streaming providers and unlicensed bookmakers in sport, generally, and in cricket, in particular. A survey by YouGov Sport found that 5 million people aged over 18 in England, Scotland and Wales admitted to watching an illegal stream during the first six months of 2023.

In cricket’s case, officials of the European Cricket League were shocked to discover some live streams attracting hundreds of thousands of views. They also discovered so-called “pitch-siders” at matches, who take advantage of the short time lag between what happens in a match and the livestreams in order to send data to unlicensed betting operators. In the last 60 years cricket’s major sponsors have moved from being, somewhat contentiously, tobacco companies through to insurance companies and, recently, to a wide range of companies in media, broadcasting, automotive, transport, hospitality and fast food. It may be that the addition of certain betting companies will prove to be another contentious sponsorship development.

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