Forget village greens and warm beer. He's gone into bat as riches rip through cricket's defences
Sean Morris is trying to negotiate a share of the new spoils for the England team while preserving the soul of the game. He talks to Martin Baker
Sunday 13 July 2008
Cricket, in case you hadn't noticed, is becoming a multi-billion-dollar global leisure industry. You'd be forgiven, of course, for not noticing because until recently only Andrew Flintoff's drinking benders had made the sport big news.
But now the populist, 20-over, slog-fest version of the game is upon us and Sony has just signed a 10-year $2bn (£1bn) rights deal to promote the Indian Premier League. Meanwhile, plans are also afoot for a rival money-spinning tournament in England in 2010.
The next IPL event is next April, and top England players such as Michael Vaughan, Kevin Pietersen and the mighty Flintoff are much sought-after.
This year, however, they couldn't go because they were contracted to play for England, and at first the influx of new money threatened the spectacle of a contest between the irresistible force and the immovable object. A broad-minded understanding of why players might be tempted by the riches on offer did not seem to be high on the agenda of the bacon-and-egg-tie brigade at Lord's; the first loyalty of cricketers was to their country.
That, though, is all changing because of the chap I'm about to meet. Sean Morris is the newly installed chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA), and he is negotiating the central contracts for England players.
A former professional, Morris has been billed as young, dynamic and a deal-maker. In the new, plutocratic world of cricket, his members will become superstars like their footballing peers – though, one hopes, without the predilections for baby Bentleys. So I'm all geared up for a much talk of globalisation, image rights, franchises and jurisdictional conflict.
Morris sweeps into the room. With his dark, floppy, widow's peak hair, piercing blue eyes with a thousand-mile stare, and a slightly vulpine cast to his features, he resembles the movie star Jeff Bridges in his pomp. Morris shakes my hand with a firm batsman's grip, now deployed across the negotiating table. "Hello," he says with a smile. "Sorry I'm a bit late. I've just come from a fight over trousers."
This isn't a Wallace and Gromit reference so much as a small story that belies a far greater business reality. Morris explains that Adidas has decided it wants to put its name on white cricketing trousers – of the kind worn in test matches – and all hell is breaking loose.
Bat manufacturers such as Wilson and Slazenger would normally want players to wear their kit too as part of any sponsorship deal, says Morris – hence the verbal punch-ups over pantaloons. Adidas spends about £1m a year marketing the England players, so it has some clout.
But that's all just pugilism in progress, and we pass on to Morris's role at the PCA in the wider context of the game. The new money coming into cricket hails from Asia and represents a shift in the game's powerbase away from the traditional Anglo-Saxon dominance (England and Wales, Australia, South Africa). Meanwhile, Sir Allen Stanford, a Texan billionaire and Caribbean tax exile, has created a one-off 20-over game, and agreed to fund it as an annual event for four years every September, between a Stanford West Indies XI and the England Twenty20 team. The winning side will get $20m.
Industry observers say the English Cricket Board (ECB) has done the Stanford deal partly to try and avert an exodus of England players to India next spring.
That means two things. You can forget strawberry teas, knitting and bookshops – the distractions you find at many a county ground to help spectators through a game that can proceed at sub-glacial pace. Cricket is being invaded by the business world. It is now a leisure industry feeling the full force of globalisation.
Second, the influx of cash means that for the first time the players whom Morris represents are a real power in the sport. The parallels are there with the early 1990s, when Rupert Murdoch's television money changed football's power structure fundamentally. The cash also transformed the public profile of football and players' wages – much to the disgust of the City, which wanted to see it invested in clubs' business activities.
So is this going to happen in cricket – an agent-led bonanza for players?
"Agents haven't really reached cricket yet," says Morris, with his trademark slow smile. As a journeyman county cricketer himself, who went on to various jobs in the leisure promotions world before joining the PCA, he certainly feels his members deserve a bit more money: "Players are central to delivering the future of the game. We have to work with the ECB and the BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India] in a world market nowadays. As the players' representatives, we must play a more effective role in securing financial rewards, but we've also got to for players coming into the game."
For the moment, then, venality and greed are not rampant. Morris is negotiating with the ECB for the top players – many of whom have their own agents – to go to India for at least some of next spring's tournament. You can see why they'd want to: the Australian Andrew Symonds got paid $675,000 for six weeks' work. "The PCA will deliver a window for players like Kevin Pietersen to go to India and maximise his income," says Morris – though that window "will be much smaller than the whole duration of the tournament".
He is now in talks on this issue with ECB, which wants a deal concluded by the end of the month. Meanwhile, although he welcomes the "massive opportunity" provided by the short form of the game, Morris is determined to preserve five-day test cricket, which he and 90 per cent of his members regard as the ultimate form of their sport. "We have a responsibility to protect the game we've got. Test matches in this country bring in £50m to £60m per annum. It would be stupid to kill off the skills required for test cricket [which aren't easily acquired in the limited-overs game]. That would be killing the golden goose."
Morris has a wide remit – to preserve test cricket and represent all professional players, the journeymen and the superstars. But there's a lot of money being thrown at the sport and, as he himself says, the agents haven't really arrived yet.
You wish him luck, but the commercial wicket looks like, sooner or later, it's going to take a bit of turn.
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