Economics blog Stumbling and Mumbling recently suggested that the unusual first names of the West Indies (WI) cricketers were possible factors explaining the squad’s poor performances. Entertaining though far-fetched, it allows the scribe to vent on a topic not only economic and financial in nature but one close to his heart.

The key causes of the WI fall from sporting glory are, in fact, a catastrophic financial position, poor administration and a sporting structure at the international level that has a vested interest in fixing player remuneration below market value. That structure is to oligopoly what feudalism was to social organisation.

Professional cricket is conceived (mostly) such that financially weak domestic leagues are the serfs of national “boards” who control the real money (which arises from international matches) and dole out grants to the clubs thus enabling them to stay afloat. The incentive of clubs is therefore to service the requirements of the boards rather than those of spectators. This is why English counties and Australian state sides (for example) can continue to play an abundance of 4 and 3 day games during the working week to largely empty grounds. See, the beauty of centrally planned production exists not only in China.

Unsurprisingly, however, it is market forces that supply the money tap of international fixtures. Television rights, the main revenue stream, are a function of consumer demand. UK satellite group Sky paid the English Cricket Board £220m for its latest 4 year deal; and the India Cricket Board received £352m from Numis (also 4 years) for rights over the greatest viewer market on the planet outside China. The West Indies – population circa 2.5 million - has a somewhat more modest Sky deal. The rich get richer in this scheme with no analogous redistribution valve like the draft system of US professional sport.

Additionally, in this system players are unable to sell their services to the highest bidder as, say, soccer players can. There is only one true buyer for all but the star cricketer – his national board – and competing labour volume is vast. The relationship between board and players is consequentially measured in degrees of adversariality.

Players unions exist but end up distorting the market even more by (for example) going beyond prevailing labour legislation and employing moral suasion to keep markets local and impede the free movement of labour onto their patch (and there are no international club competitions). England’s Professional Cricketers’ Association, for example, is able to produce hymns to protectionism like this, decry European Union “Kolpak” labour market rulings as threats rather than opportunities and yet then turn around and proclaim without irony:
“that players want to see changes to the structure of the domestic game and they believe that it should mirror international competition more closely... players want competitive cricket, all season long. They desire competitions that have intensity, integrity and that incentivise high playing standards throughout their entirety.” (link)
Forced, then, to rely on amateur-based domestic structures an impoverished by contrast WI system is on the back foot from ball one. Attempts to change the systemic obstacles depend on other wealthier boards - and turkeys don’t often vote for Christmas.

It must be said that the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) does not help itself when operating within the structural restrictions placed upon it. It is not, for example, a model of efficiency or transparency. Some other boards such as the English Cricket Board publish their financial accounts. The WICB do not and as a result doubts surround its financial management abilities (it is known to carry large debts), its sales & marketing savvy (the “West Indies” brand is not what it might have been following a generation of global dominance) and the paternalistic methods it uses in dealing with its players.

One route to financial reform and the rebuilding of trust of both players and public might be an offering on the regional exchanges. Regional pride is strong enough to carry this through but political and cultural sensitivities are such that regional governments would have to be shareholders; and a multi-class share structure including non-voting equity would be required to preclude foreign owner influence over management.

Not that a “new” WICB would be enough - but it would not have to pretend to be. There exists a new financial and commercially driven force in Caribbean cricket controlled by Allen Stanford, the Kerry Packer of the region. Relations between millionaire Texan (yes) Stanford and the WICB have to date not been smooth, largely the result of the latter attempting to mark turf and protect its fiefdom. Yet a revamped, refinanced, open and market-oriented WICB might be able to make something of this unique investment opportunity to create a domestic demand that pays to watch. The Stanford tournament experiment has already turned up notable talent in its first year in the form of Nevisian teenager Kieran Pollard.

There was a similar opportunity in the late 1970s when the original Kerry Packer injected professionalism into world cricket and saved great players like Michael Holding from a life of programming computers for Barclays Bank in Kingston, Jamaica. From there the WI ascended to dominance and lost to no one in the highest form of the game anywhere for 16 years.

Are you not tired, Dear non-Australian Reader, of the same team winning everything?

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