One of the most remarkable changes that has taken place in the field of sports during the last few decades is the stripping of the mask relating to accepting of monetary compensation for performances. In the past, sportspersons were expected to perform and entertain the spectators solely motivated by their love for the sport. They proudly wore the tag of amateurs, basking in the adulation of the followers of the sport and accepting medals and mementoes, little realising that they would be forgotten once their heyday were over. This led to situations wherein sportspersons who had represented their country in international events were left with very little means to survive and, in some instances, even forced to live in penury, with hardly any resources for making ends meet, let alone afford quality medical treatment.
However, this scenario underwent a dramatic change during the last half of the century as many sports bodies started accepting the existence of professionals. This trend, which started in events such as basketball, football and boxing, spread to almost all sporting activities, benefitting sportspersons, both participants in individual disciplines as well as team events. The advent of live television coverage of major sporting events made celebrities out of successful sportspersons and soon they started getting offers for endorsing products and brands.
The increasing popularity of sporting events caught the attention of corporates who started sponsoring them, resulting in pouring of more funds into this arena with consequent spurt in prize money and provision of better amenities for the participants. This turn of events made millionaires out of champion sportspersons, eventually reaching a stage where their wealth and earnings has attracted the attention Forbes Magazine, a publication that specialises in bringing out lists of rich and powerful persons.
In its recent edition, which focuses on sportspersons, Forbes magazine has published the names of 100 top earning athletes the world over. Topping the list is Floyd Mayweather, the boxing champion, who pocketed a mind boggling sum of $275 million for winning his fight against Conor McGregor last August. He is not new to this position as he had been the highest revenue grossing sportsperson in 2014 and 2015 as well. He was followed by footballers Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo, who earned $111 million and 108 million respectively while McGregor, who lost the fight to Mayweather, was placed fourth at $99 million. Others who figured in the top 10 were footballer Neymar, National Foot League stars Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford, two basketball players LeBron James and Stephen Curry, and tennis legend Roger Federer.
It is not surprising that three out of the top 10 earners are footballers as this game is, without doubt, the most popular one in the world and caters to a global television audience. Further, club football has developed strong roots and deep pockets and champion players are paid huge amounts for donning the colours of top sides.
Professional boxing remains a sport that attracts huge amounts of money though its popularity is limited to very few pockets. Basketball, like boxing, attracts rich sponsors, particularly in the US, which accounts for the presence of two representatives in the top 10. Federer's popularity cuts across national boundaries. It is a tribute to his genius and physique that despite being at the fag end of a long career, he could manage a place in this list comfortably.
Kohli in elite club
Virat Kohli, the skipper of the Indian cricket team, is the only one representing the country and the sport in the Forbes top 100. With an annual earning of $24 million in 2017, Kohli figured at 83rd position. His income comprised $1 million from contract with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), $2.65 million from his Indian Premier League (IPL) side Royal Bangalore Challengers and $20 million from endorsements. Not surprisingly, the other Indian sportsmen who had earlier figured in the Forbes top 100 list are also cricketers - Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar. Thus Kohli was only following the footsteps of these two giants when he found a place in this coveted list.
The presence of Kohli in this list is likely to trigger off another round of debate regarding the emoluments earned by cricketers in India. There is no doubt that cricketers are paid much more than practitioners of others sports in the country. However, one must appreciate that this is a fairly recent phenomenon and till the 1970s cricketers also used to be poorly paid.
Prior to 1970s, whenever a team toured India for playing Test matches, the visitors would be provided passage by air and where that was not possible by first class in trains, while the hosts were forced to travel by second class. Most of the members of the national side had to thank State Bank of India and its associate banks for employing them. Very few cricketers endorsed any products or were asked to appear in advertisements.
The few players who were offered contract to take part in county cricket or play for clubs in England as professionals had to face innumerable difficulties on account of lack of support from the BCCI in this regard. Vinoo Mankad and Farokh Engineer were not considered for selection to the national side in 1952 and 1971 respectively, on account of the BCCI not being happy with their contractual obligations with the counties/ clubs.
The BCCI was shaken out of its somnolence when top Test playing countries such as Australia, West Indies, England and Pakistan lost their best players to the World Series Cricket of Kerry Packer and the representatives of the television mogul initiated efforts to rope in Indian players as well for his parallel cricket circuit. When the 1978-79 domestic cricket season began, the BCCI announced a substantial increase in the allowances for players for Test matches. This was maintained throughout the 1980s as the coffers of the BCCI started getting filled up in the aftermath of the 1983 World Cup victory and successful conduct of 1987 World Cup.
However, a quantum leap in the earnings of the BCCI and players took place during the first half of last decade of twentieth century when telecast of international matches was taken out of the stranglehold of Doordarshan and handed over to top notch international sports telecasters.
The simultaneous spread of cable television network throughout India ensured that the entire country was soon watching the matches played by the national side sitting inside the comforts of their living room. This made instant celebrities of cricketers and advertisers started making a beeline to them. Sachin Tendulkar was the first cricketer to reap the benefits when he was signed by Mark Mascarenhas of WorldTel for a whopping sum of Rs 25 crore for five years in 1995. The significance of this amount would be realised only when one is told that till signing with Mascarenhas, the annual income of Tendulkar from advertisements was a measly Rs 16 lakh!
Many Indian cricketers followed the benchmark set by Tendulkar and started raking in millions from endorsing products, which far exceeded the income they earned from playing the game. At his peak, Dhoni was ranked as the 16th richest sportsperson by Forbes magazine in 2013 with earning of $ 31.5 million. In 2012, he wasplaced at 31st position and could move up 15 positions during the course of one year.
Sports as a career
It goes without saying that fame and material prosperity achieved by successful sportspersons have prompted many to think of a career in sports. The young boys, who travel with their huge cricket kits in crowded buses and trains early in the morning to reach their ground at the first crack of dawn, are fired by the dream of emulating the success of their idols. Parents are also more supportive in such endeavours as they have seen for themselves that persons who pursue a career in sports do not end up lower in life than those who strive for academic excellence.
Though more youngsters are drawn to cricket, other games such as badminton, football and even kabaddi have started attracting new talent as leagues involving professional clubs on the line of IPL have gained popularity. This augurs well for sports in the country and this has been reflected in the nation tasting more success in international events during recent years.
A final thought should be lent for the unseen men and women who toil to ensure success of any sporting event. While the spectators flock to the arena to watch the stars in action, there exists a huge retinue of support staff who work overtime to ensure that the event goes off as planned. In cricket they consist of the groundsman and his support staff, the caterers and cleaners, scorers and umpires, other officials etc who contribute to successful conduct of any cricket match. These are the persons who have provided the virtual steel frame to the BCCI, which helped that body to attract and nurture talent from all parts of the country.
It is to the credit of the BCCI that it provides financial benefits, including pension, to all members of the support staff involved with conduct of game at all levels. Other sports bodies should also recognise the fact that wholesome development of sports would happen only when persons involved in it all levels are able to work in an environment wherein their financial needs are secure. They would do well to take a leaf out of the BCCI’s book and work towards ensuring financial security of support teams engaged in conduct of matches, right from the grassroots. Only when this happens would we be able to call ourselves as a country that cares for and promotes sports and sportspersons; until then we would not be able to break into the league of top sporting nations.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)