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Value destruction in sport business – the case of Australian cricket

The land down under is built on the foundations of convict labour. Boats full of unwanted ‘criminals’ landed in Sydney and Melbourne just over 200 years ago to be put to work to build modern Australia – the rulers of England could sentence you to be deported to the Australian penal colony for stealing a loaf of bread. The convicts brought with them the British traditions, none of which more iconic than the game of cricket. And for the villains of Australia to beat the mother country at their own game, was to be the sweetest revenge. When this happened for the first time, a satirical obituary in The Sporting Times (1882) noted that ‘English cricket had died, and the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia’. It positioned Australia, it validated its existence, its value, its prowess and its right to exist, independently, and proudly. Cricket specifically, and sport in general has maintained that level of importance in the Australian psyche, and in the way that Australians perceive themselves within and sometimes against the rest of the world.

I have been living in Australia for 24 years. I have never, ever seen the media feeding frenzy on a ‘scandal’ in sport, that is happening right now around the ball tampering admissions by the (former) Australian cricket captain Steve Smith and his leadership group. For those tuning in from around the world, ball tampering in cricket is the illegal practice of manipulating the shape and/or surface of the ball, so that it moves in unexpected directions, with the result that the batsman of the opposition gets (caught) out. Visual (camera) evidence of Australian bowler Cameron Bancroft stuffing tape down his pants led to the immediate admission by Steve Smith that the leadership group had discussed and agreed to ‘cheating’ through illegally manipulating the ball. Smith promised that ‘it would not happen again’….

Since the news broke two days ago… the International Cricket Council has condemned and punished; the Australian Sports Commission has condemned and judged; the Rajasthan Royals cricket team in the Indian Premier League have taken the captaincy away from Steve Smith; the coach of the Australian Cricket team has (almost) resigned from his position; the CEO of Cricket Australia has apologised and updated the Australian public in two open letters; he is on a plane to South Africa, following his Director of Integrity, and of course… English cricketers have used this opportunity to soften the humiliation of their recent Ashes defeat by implying that the Aussies are likely to have cheated during most recent Ashes encounters as well. The media coverage on this issue has utterly dominated the Australian news cycle for the past 48 hours, and will continue to do so for the next 48.

Why is this such a big issue? Let’s start at the Aussie battler’s perspective. Against all odds, the convicts beat the landed gentry (on their home soil) in 1882. Kings and Queens were beaten by commoners and strugglers. They did this by simply outplaying and outsmarting them. A fair go in a just contest that would test real and honest skills, rather than land and money trumping muscles and working hard to make ends meet. This attitude defines not only Australian sporting values, but it defines what it means to be Australian. Steve and the boys, naively, have violated these values in a way that is beyond belief, flabbergasting most Australians. How naïve, dumb, ignorant can you be – is what the public opinion tells us – to not understand that you simply cannot do this? Sure, cricketers and other sportsmen and sportswomen will tell you that winning is important. And that winning in elite sport, with huge performance pressures from coaches, federations, sponsors and the media makes it even harder not to fall victim to illegitimate ways of beating your opponent. But to not consider the range of far reaching consequences that cheating in cricket would have on the game itself, on Australia’s cultural values of having a fair go, play within the rules but play hard, and on all the stakeholders in the process – from the Prime Minister in his communications with other Commonwealth leaders, to Cricket Australia in their current media rights negotiations, and from the International Cricket Council to the players of the game, all of whom will be affected by the value destruction that this ‘incident’ is causing, is simply beyond belief.

The media rights will suffer from a short-term devaluation, if not a lasting long-term effect. Cricket Australia will scramble to regain control of the negotiations. They will try to stall, and wait for this scandal to leave the front and back pages of the papers, and for it to stop inciting the grunt of social media influencers whose anger will reverberate in the corridors media rights negotiation. Sponsors will question their commitment to the sport and to the governing bodies and individual players. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce weighted into the discussion by telling Cricket Australia to ‘deal with the issue as quick as possible’. The Qantas logo went around the world displayed on the team’s cap and Joyce made the sponsor’s position really clear, ‘Australia is all about a fair go ….and unfortunately our cricket team have let us down’.

Just over 6 months ago the Australian Cricket Players Association fought hard – by threatening to boycott the Ashes – for a fair deal for its players, also in context of the new media rights deal to be negotiated. Those very same players have destructed value that far outweighs the negotiated benefits for players in the long term, that would have been the result of the new media deal. And sadly, two of my favourite batsmen – Smith and Warner – at the forefront of bargaining a deal for their colleagues, will suffer most personally from the brand damage that has been inflicted. This damage extends to the (different versions of the) game, the federations including the ICC and Cricket Australia, and of course to their personal player brands. Smith, as a possible heir to the long-held throne of Bradman, and Warner as the little guy who can do batting magic in all versions of the game – Test, One-day and T20.

The ultimate sad irony of it all is that I believe that neither Smith, nor Warner or Lehmann ever meant to damage the game, or Australian cricket in general. They naively thought that they were just trying to ‘get on top’ of the opposition. That what happens on tour stays on tour. They were blinded by an utter desire to win, adrenaline, dopamine, chemistry in the brain – no rational minds in the dressing room. That if you push the boundaries within the rules, or just cross them but nobody finds out, we’ll be right. They will probably tell us that ball tampering is common in cricket, at Test level, at First Class level and in community cricket. Sure guys…

What they did not realise, naively and stupidly, is that sport in Australia, and cricket very specifically talks on behalf of a whole country. The Australian cricket team is the voice of a nation. They represent deeply engrained cultural values. They tell the rest of the world that ‘this is how we do things’. And Australia, the Prime Minister, the CEO of the Australian Sports Commission, the CEO of Cricket Australia, the CEO of Qantas, and descendants of the convicts who were sent here some 200 years ago, don’t want the world to think that Australian’s ‘cheat’ in order to win. Because the reality is, most of the time we don’t. I just hope that in time, we will give Smith and Warner a fair go. Because that also, is part of the Australian way of the world. They may never be captaining Australia again, but if you stuff up (big time), we will give you another chance.