Beyond our boundary

Earlier this week, after pocketing a US$10 million bonus for winning the Fedex Cup, Tiger Woods became the first billionaire athlete in history, according to Forbes magazine. The two next richest athletes, were Michael Jordan and Michael Schumacher.  But neither man is likely to feel too put out by the news. Even after retiring from basketball, Jordan still earns an estimated US$45 million a year, and both he and Schumacher (with an estimated $700 million in Formula One earnings) are within a few years of crossing the billion dollar mark as well.

Like other contemporary sports ‘phenom’ Tiger Woods has grown used to superlatives. At the age of 33, he has already won 14 majors – Jack Nicklaus, golf’s previous “greatest player” won 19 over the course of four decades. His even temperament is legendary and once ahead – save for one recent and probably unrepeatable exception – he does not lose. On the way to his superstardom, Tiger has also shown exceptional business sense. In addition to the tens of millions of dollars which he earns in sponsorship annually, his appearance fees for playing outside of America can now top US $3 million.

In March of this year, AFP reported that there were complaints in Australia when Woods announced his decision to play in the Australian Open in Melbourne, since the local taxpayers would effectively, in the middle of a financial crisis, be asked to foot half of the AUS$2 million fee required to guarantee his attendance. Armed with auditors’ analyses, the Victorian premier countered this argument with the estimate that Woods’ appearance at the tournament was likely to generate nearly ten times as much money for Australian tourism. This was practically an admission that Tiger has now become a larger draw than the rest of the pro tour. In fact, by any rational calculation, the huge appearance fees remain one of the best bargains in professional sport. Any country that wants to establish itself in the glamorous world of pro-golf would be hard-pressed to find a better way of spending a few million dollars. Woods’ popularity has also helped to keep the tour  lucrative – the forgotten cast of PGA extras regularly generate incomes that run into seven figures.  Two years ago, Colin Montgomerie – who has yet to win one of golf’s “majors” —  earned in excess of US$20 million in a single year. (To put that in perspective, the Cricket World Cup in the West Indies made a “record profit” of US$53.9 million, of which $24.6 million was given to the West Indies cricket board, one quarter of which was shared among the regional cricket boards.)

At the top level in many globally televised sports, money is at best only a partial explanation of what drives the superstar athletes. Consider, for example that Woods now earns US$10 million for designing golf courses (several times as much in endorsement fees) and it is easy to see how much his dedication to the sport must be driven by something else. Even the interminable citation of career statistics can only partly explain his motivation. Chasing  Nicklaus’ record, as Federer has chased Sampras’ has become more about achieving a sort of immortality in the sport. That is what keeps athletes like Jordan and Schumacher, up late at night working on their technique, ensuring that they can compete absolutely at the top of their game. Kobe Bryant, the LA Lakers star who is one of the only players who can be compared with Jordan, gets up at 5 a.m. each morning to begin training in the gym, even though he has won the NBA championships several times in a row and could easily quit for a life of luxury and self-indulgence.

The contrast with cricket, especially within the Caribbean, is revealing. The game in general, and West Indies cricket in particular, faces a very different set of challenges. Although we continue to produce athletes who are world-class, there is hardly any domestic competition – leaving aside the anomalous Stanford circus– which can pay anything like the salaries which foreign superstars routinely earn. National pride in regional tournaments is also noticeably lacking in intra-regional tournaments, compared to what is displayed when the English or Australians come on tour. A decade ago, for example, when Guyana played Trinidad in Port of Spain, despite the fact that the teams contained Brian Lara, Phil Simmons, Gus Logie, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and Carl Hooper – there were only a few dozen spectators in the ground. This lukewarm response – unthinkable in India, or even in British cricket – can hardly form the basis of a renaissance in West Indian cricket. Under-appreciated and undervalued, it is hardly surprising that so many current players look to secure their financial futures elsewhere.

World cricket is changing to meet the demands of globalization. The future belongs to market driven entities like the new multinational cricket franchises in IPL cricket, not to poorly coordinated nation states like those currently struggling to overhaul our regional team. Increasingly cricket’s superstars – Flintoff, Pietersen, Muralitharan – are yielding to the temptation of dropping out of test cricket in order to make serious money in the shorter forms of the game. If these lionized players can be persuaded, it should come as no surprise that less beloved West Indian players often choose the same path.

A few months ago, in an illuminating article Sambit Bal, the editor of wrote that this moment of transition –between test cricket and the abbreviated versions which are being used to promote it as a global sport – requires a level of introspection that is noticeably absent in discussions about the future of the sport. Bal argues that “The reality for cricket is that it can afford neither to leave its past behind or to close its eyes to the future. For those who run the game, the way out of the muddle is not to tilt this way or the other but to find the middle path. To be able to do that, they must rise above parochial interests and their egos.” Failure to do that will probably result in the demise of test cricket and the complete dominance of 20-20 tournaments. Any West Indian who has ever grasped the meaning of the game, and its importance to our collective identity, should shudder at that prospect.

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