Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Cricket in the Olympics: Why it's a win-win

The International Olympic Committee and the LA28 organisers can leverage the subcontinent's obsession with the sport to command higher media rights and brand interest, while the game will grow from exposure on the global stage

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Oct 18, 2023 10:55:49 AM IST
Updated: Oct 18, 2023 12:05:36 PM IST

Cricket in the Olympics: Why it's a win-winIndia's Ravindra Jadeja (left) appeals against Pakistan's Mohammad Rizwan (in green) during the 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup match between India and Pakistan in Ahmedabad. As the sport makes it to the LA Olympics in 2028, the IOC will hope to cash in on such storied rivalries from the subcontinent  Image: Sajjad Husssain / AFP

After months of will-it-won’t-it, cricket has finally exited the corridor of uncertainty and made it to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics (LA28).

On Monday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members, at its 141st session in Mumbai, voted overwhelmingly (but not unanimous, with two votes against) for cricket’s inclusion in the Olympics. IOC President Thomas Bach had all but confirmed it on Friday, announcing that the executive body has accepted the LA organising committee’s proposal for the inclusion of the sport among a package of five—along with baseball/softball, lacrosse, squash and flag football—but the voting made it official.

While the International Cricket Council (ICC) has proposed a six-team T20 competition for both men and women, the final word on the qualification pathway is unlikely to be heard before the Paris Games next July. But whatever the format may be, it will be way more elaborate than the only other time the sport was played in the Games—in 1900, with a single match where Great Britain beat hosts France to win the gold medal.   

“This will strengthen the engagement with South Asian countries, and not just 1.4 billion Indians,” says Nita Ambani, chairperson of the Reliance Foundation and the only elected member of the IOC from India. “The decision could not have come at a better time—when the World Cup is being played at home and the IOC session has come back to India after 40 years.”  

What does this mean for both cricket and the Olympics? For starters, the Olympic broadcast rights in India could go up 10x from the current reported £15.6 million ($20 million) to £150 million, says The Guardian quoting experts. That would be a significant ramp-up of the IOC’s revenues as broadcasting rights form the lion’s share of its overall revenue. Consider that of the IOC’s total $7.6 billion revenue from the 2017-2020/21 cycle, ending with the Tokyo Games, media rights accounted for a whopping 61 percent—the numbers have also nearly doubled from the $2,567 million it earned from the cycle ending with the 2008 Beijing Games to $4,544 million in the latest cycle. 

Cricket in the Olympics: Why it's a win-win

The Indian Premier League’s (IPL) 3x rise in media rights—from Rs16,347 crore in 2017 to Rs48,390 crore in 2023—indicates what cricket can do to revenues in the subcontinent. While the Olympics wouldn’t benefit in such large numbers—since the growth has to start from zero—it’s clear from LA28 Chairman Casey Wasserman’s words that the IPL has been top of his mind while discussing the inclusion of cricket in the Olympics.

Wasserman, who spoke about how the organising committee whittled down the list from 40 to nine sports, and then got into deeper conversations with each of the stakeholders before zeroing in on its proposal of five, touched upon the IPL’s high-octane engagement and viewership. “My first IPL match was in Mumbai in 2010, and it’s something I will never forget,” Wasserman says. “It was electric… we want to recreate that environment.”  Perhaps that explains why IOC chief Bach “didn’t have much convincing to do”, when cricket came up in his conversation with Wasserman during a dinner last year, during his visit to Eugene, USA, for the World Athletics Championship. 

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But it’s not just the media rights—the eyeballs that the IOC would draw from India and the entire subcontinent would give it an even bigger fillip. Says Bhairav Shanth, co-founder of sports marketers ITW Consulting: “The opening week of the Tokyo Olympics, the period that included Neeraj Chopra’s gold-winning javelin throw, saw a viewership of 69 million on linear TV, according to BARC data. In comparison, a cricket match between India and Pakistan gets around double the viewers. So, to include cricket in the Olympics means a significant boost to viewership in the subcontinent, and these higher numbers will translate to more brands getting interested in advertising.”  

Higher viewership from the subcontinent might also facilitate the IOC to ink a TOP sponsorship agreement with a leading Indian corporate. TOP (The Olympic Partners), which is the IOC’s highest level of Olympic sponsorship awarding category-exclusive marketing rights, now spans 14 leading global corporates, and fetched the organisation 30 percent of its revenues in the 2017-2020/21 cycle—that’s about $2,295 million, up from $96 million in 1985-88, the cycle of its inception. Anne-Sophie Voumard, managing director of IOC’s Television And Marketing Services, the commercial arm, had earlier told Forbes India on the sidelines of the Mumbai IOC session: “I’m very confident that we’re going to soon see the first Indian company joining the programme.”

Voumard also referred to the growing stature of India as an Olympics market, buoyed by the performance of their athletes, especially Chopra, on the world stage. More than 60 million Indians watched Chopra’s gold-winning throw on the Olympics platform, a number that was higher than the Indian viewership for the entire Rio Games in 2016. Cricket is only expected to amp it up. “The sport will resonate with the Indian market and in the private sector, which will spark interest in corporations to be associated with us,” Voumard had said.

Cricket in the Olympics: Why it's a win-win

Viewership, both on TV and digital, is an aspect that has also been mentioned by Niccolo Campriani, a three-time Italian Olympic shooting champion and now the sports director of LA28, when he referred to Virat Kohli’s social media following during the presentation to the IOC session. “Think about my friend Virat… he's the third-most followed athlete in the world on social media with 314 million followers. That's more than LeBron James, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods combined. This is the ultimate win-win for LA28," he said.  

While the IOC can leverage the national obsession that cricket is in the subcontinent, the sport, too, can benefit from exposure on arguably the world’s biggest sporting stage. “This is a massive shot in the arm for cricket and part of our ongoing strategy to grow the sport. We are a global sport and there are some areas that we will look to go into—some countries that are perhaps underrepresented or not represented will now have the opportunity through the Olympic movement to participate in cricket,” says Greg Barclay, ICC chairman.

Adds Karan Taurani, senior vice president, Elara Capital: “If you look at the global media rights for sports, more than 50 percent is drawn by soccer and American football, and cricket is just about 3 percent. But if you look at a market like India, about 92 percent of the sports revenue is cricket-led. There is a big difference in terms of how cricket is perceived globally and in India.”

Even for the IPL, over 90 percent of its media rights value comes from the domestic market, with only Rs1,058 crore coming from overseas rights. Putting cricket in the Olympics could make the sport bigger globally, leading to a bigger audience and, subsequently, higher media rights and better valuation.

There is, though, a bit of cynicism about the six-team tournament limiting its competitiveness. However, all team sports at LA28 will comprise six teams in both men’s and women’s categories, and a well-defined qualification route and ensuring the teams bring their best players should help sustain interest. “It may actually play in favour of the Olympics because it would mean that we see more high-voltage encounters, amping up spectator interest,” says Shanth of ITW.

Also read: The ODI format is under threat and bilaterals have become sterile: Gary Kirsten

This would also be cricket’s opportunity to grow in the US, one of the largest sports markets in the world, where it has already begun to make headway. The first edition of the Major League Cricket (MLC)—a six-team professional tournament that was backed by the likes of Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella—was launched this year, while the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup in 2024 will be co-hosted by the US and the West Indies. Meanwhile, IPL franchise Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), with support from the MLC, is building a cricket stadium in Los Angeles. “It's all coming together as part of a growth strategy for the US,” says Barclay of the ICC.

Says Balu Nayar, consultant and investment banker, and architect of the IPL in his stint as managing director, IMG South Asia, “The MLC owners are quite encouraged by the audience response in the first year despite the teething issues. One of them told me they'd achieved their Year 3 objectives in the first year. I see cricket becoming more and more popular in the US, driven, first, by the South Asian audience.”

Cricket in the Olympics: Why it's a win-win

Nayar said that, over the years, he had received quite a few inquiries about the IPL from American investors and the news that the IPL had, in 2023, become the second-most valuable sporting league worldwide had sparked investor and corporate interest. “We have four more seasons of the MLC before LA28, and with a continuing growth trend from here, I’d see the US becoming the fourth largest cricket market very soon,” he says.   

Says Wasserman. “Our Games are not just about Los Angeles, but they're about the world. And we get the opportunity to bring a sport that has 2.5 billion fans to what we think is the greatest sports city in the world. It’s a really powerful combination.”