Sri Lanka sports: Ice hockey, cricket and money

June 17, 2011 (LBO) – I felt like writing a column on a subject that would surprise everyone. Ice hockey. But not only ice hockey . . .

I used to live in Canada, long ago. In Vancouver, on the west coast. Quite far from everywhere, and not talked about much. Except in the past few weeks. The Vancouver Canucks are in the NHL [National Hockey League] playoffs and the city is getting plenty of media play.

The point is really about money, not hockey. Money that Sri Lanka Cricket does not have, now that its request for 2,000,000,000 rupees in taxpayer funds has been rejected by Cabinet. Money it can make, if it starts acting in a hardheaded way like sports administrators the world over do.

It’s also about the free and highly effective publicity that is generated for cities and countries by professional sports. And about how we in Sri Lanka can leverage our prowess in at least one professional sport to change the image of the country and bring more tourists in.

These days everyone is running ad campaigns on global TV channels and in target markets. Not only “Malaysia, Truly Asia” and “Incredible India,” but all kinds of countries: Turkey, Indonesia, Taiwan, Georgia. There is a good reason to be cautious. Not easy to repeat the success of the Malaysian campaign amid the clutter. And these things cost money. Lots of money.

But think of the free publicity one gets from sports, carried by multiple channels over and over again to slake the hunger for entertaining content. South Africa leveraged the hosting of the World Cup (of soccer) wonderfully, by running an image-changing campaign before and during the Cup. Beats me why we did not, when “the Cup that Matters” landed on our lap because of Pakistan’s misfortunes. Too busy building monuments to oversized egos, I guess.

Past is past. What can be done?

IPL and NHL

T20. But more than T20, IPL. This is the world’s most lucrative cricket product. Why are we trying to compete with it? Why not join it? Can you imagine the media play we’d get if we had a Colombo team competing in the IPL?

But stop, I hear people saying. IPL. Indian Premier League. This is not India. This is where we loop back into hockey, the National Hockey League.

In the old days, Canadians played hockey and the Americans played baseball and American football. This is how one could tell them apart, other than that fact that Americans would use the fork with their right hand sometimes, and the Canadians, never.

Of course, these were not iron-clad distinctions. The Boston Bruins, the Detroit Red Wings and a few other teams on the cold northern edge of the United States go back a long time. In the long cold winters, the playing of hockey on ice makes a lot more sense than playing football.

But still, hockey is the Canadian game (officially, it’s Canada’s national winter sport). Some would even say it is Canada’s national religion. The Stanley Cup is named for a Canadian Governor General. And the Montreal Canadiens are the team that won it the most times.

Yet, for the past 20 years, only one Canadian team, the famed Montreal Canadiens, won the cup (in 1993). This is why the 2011 playoff matters so much to my Canadian friends. Teams based in Canadian cities have made it to the final only six times (Montreal 1993, Vancouver 1994, Calgary 2004, Edmonton 2006, Ottawa 2007, and now Vancouver). That’s six out of 40 possibilities or 15 percent; pretty low for the national religion.

This contrasts with almost complete Canadian domination in decades prior.

What happened was a massive expansion into the United States in the 1990s that saw franchises being given to teams in Florida, California and Ohio among others. In the competition between national pride and money, money won. The big television markets are in the US. Canada’s population is about one-tenth that of the US. Canada has few large cities that can support professional teams.

So what does the N mean in the NHL? Does it mean the nation of Canada or the nation of the USA? Possibly, the nation of hockey.

Despite the fact that only a few teams are located in Canada, the game continues to have a strong Canadian flavor, with almost all the teams including Canadian players. Identities are very fluid in sports, as the IPL is beginning to teach us. Dhoni captains Chennai, but is not from Tamilnadu.

Money and collateral publicity

So back to cricket. And money which Sri Lanka Cricket does not have.

Where is the money? In India. Therefore where will the most attractive professional cricket be played? In India. Who will get the most media play? India. Who will get the most money? India. What are the chances of a rival T20 tournament coming even close, especially if it is located in a country with 1/50th the population and malnourished media markets? None.

So, what is the best course of action for Sri Lanka Cricket, now in a 2 billion rupee deep hole after spending lavishly on stadia/monuments at the behest of the very politicians who are washing their hands off the mess? Go on bended knee to the Indian Board and ask for an IPL franchise for Sri Lanka, may be two. Take advantage of Kochi’s stadium troubles and offer Premadasa to the Tuskers for the next IPL season.

This will not only save Sri Lanka Cricket from the ignominy of reneging on contacts, but will also result in Sri Lanka getting a lot of free publicity in Indian and other cricket-crazy markets, which will give a big boost to tourism as well.

And the “I” in the IPL? Easy, so easy, for a country that is named for a river in Pakistan. International.