The past few weeks have not been glorious ones for sport. Drugs, betting scandals, murder; if you’re someone of even a slightly negative or cynical disposition, there is plenty of news about the place to reinforce your worldview. It has actually made me seriously question what it is that our major sports stand for and whether we have reached some kind of tipping point in the contempt with which the sports we love have started to look at us.
As fans, we put up with a lot and generally soldier on, but you can’t help but find it hard to stomach the constant bad news when it is being actively leveraged by administrators to the commercial betterment of the sports in which we invest so much of our own emotional capital. Is this becoming a one-way relationship?
Everyone recognises that hackneyed maxim of marketing that “there is no such thing as bad publicity”, but it is quite something else when prominent sports administrators admit as much with something approaching approval, rather than, say, resignation. Two weeks back, Cricket Australia’s Executive General Manager of Marketing, Ben Amarfio, made some quite astonishing comments at a “Meet the Marketer’s” event held by Mumbrella.
Speaking of the tabloid scandals that have engulfed the major football codes in recent times, Amarfio was of the view that, “In the last 12 months, the NRL has had players assault women, players assault policemen, they’ve had drug, corruption and match fixing issues – the list goes on and on. And yet they've just signed a TV deal for over $1bn, which is almost 50% bigger than their last TV deal.”
With regards to the PED storm currently being weathered by the AFL, Amarfio said “It’s a huge story. But I guarantee that this story will prompt a lot of interest, and generate a lot of discussion and debate around sport,” before adding, “It’s not always such a bad thing to get negative press.” Amarfio may well be correct in that statement, but sentiments such as those are cold comfort to genuine cricket lovers looking for the kind of leadership that will secure the future of the game as we’ve always known and loved it. Are the current CA administration so focused on clicks, hits and spin that they’ve forgotten that it’s cuts, drives and wins that get us punters through the gates?
In response to criticism that followed the Mumbrella piece, Amarfio fell back on that catch-all excuse; he was “quoted out of context.” In that respect, he’d challenge Newt Gingrich for sheer audacity. If you re-read those quotes, it is hard to imagine them being spun into any kind of narrative that doesn’t make Amarfio appear at least thoughtless. He has only been with Cricket Australia for 6 months but it’s scarcely conceivable what kind of moral holes he could be able to dig the game into based on this opening gambit.
But Amarfio does have a conscience you see, look at this qualifier: “I only worry about it, when it gets to the stage where people are saying we’re immoral or doing something illegal, then that’s where you worry as a marketer.”
You only worry about it when people are saying you’re doing something immoral or illegal? So for instance, we could probably feel content with having done our jobs if no-one kicks up a stink about our immorality, Ben? That’s the only point at which you worry? I guess he can rest easy that the Madden brothers only fall under the ‘mildly immoral’ banner. And notice he said “as a marketer”, not “as a lover of the game.” Cricket Australia don’t have a great track record of employing people who actually like cricket though, so maybe I’m being harsh on that point.
But then, no cricket fan should be especially surprised by Amarfio’s slightly grotty outlook on marketing ethics. He spent the best part of the last 6 years as General Manager of Southern Cross Austereo in Melbourne. Apparently Cricket Australia’s search for the brightest and best landed them at the sloppy seconds of an organisation whose cultural trademarks included light-heartedly interviewing teenage rape victims on air. Amarfio must be secretly spewing he missed out on the Royal Prank. There’s no doubt that that story “prompted a lot of interest” in the brand. I wonder where that would have sat on that pesky morality continuum though? Or maybe Amarfio would be happier back in the job he had before that at the AFL? It’d be grouse to have all these druggo’s and wife-bashers taking up column inches and driving up your broadcasting rights value. Fame and infamy, one and the same.
Ben Amarfio (second from right) and friends.
Actually, what a difference a drugs or (new) betting scandal could make for cricket; surely we’d only have to throw a few careers under the publicity bus for a cash bonanza? Think of the rights deals, and the Facebook hits! We’d need to borrow Channel 7’s stupid Fango thing just to keep up with all the traffic that Twitter couldn't handle. Stealing some ideas from Amarfio’s time “successfully re-branding Triple M”, perhaps next year we could have a “Battle of the Sexes” match between the Southern Stars and the Aussie men with entertainment provided by Nickelback and Snow Patrol? The men might even win, and there’s nothing more Triple M than that.
You wouldn’t even need dress-ups, people would be phoning in with requests from all over Australia. Kyle Sandilands could give bitchy special comments in the commentary box. Loud music and ads would scream at you from out of nowhere. Hamish and Andy could even goof around on the boundary. Oh hang on, replace Sandilands with Mark Waugh and I’ve pretty much just described a Big Bash broadcast…
But it’s not all on Amarfio’s head of course, we also have to look seriously in the direction of his boss, James Sutherland. Though always appearing youthful if not carefree, Sutherland has actually been in the top job at CA for some 12 years. Let’s not forget that in the wake of Shane Warne’s awful spat with Marlon Samuels in the Big Bash, it was Sutherland who said , “whilst we ... don't condone anything that happened, this sort of thing is something that only inspires greater rivalry between the Renegades and the Stars and only creates greater interest in the Big Bash League." He must have sampled a bit too much of the FM radio Kool-Aid as he waited for Amarfio in the Austereo car park. It also has to be noted how quickly they’ve both side-swiped Sutherland’s “Spirit of Cricket” mantra in the meantime.
Cricket Australia may not have been embroiled in the current PED’s saga, but they are themselves addicted to what’s turned out to a far more elusive drug: publicity. Their cross-town rivals at the AFL have done an exemplary job of suffocating the life out of any serious cricket coverage in the tabloid press. CA must be green with envy at Demetriou’s lot; in publicity terms he is high on his own supply. Sutherland can only sit and watch in awe, but you’d also think he’d be secretly praying that a Tony Montana-esque character arc awaits Demetriou. On current evidence, it would appear ‘Amarfio’s Law of Beneficial Scandal’ is holding true. Demetriou will likely endure, as will the blanket coverage of an AFL season that’s annexes seem to stretch further and further into cricket’s summer camping spot by the year.
Perhaps Sutherland and Amarfio should be tasking themselves with dealing with their own scandals, like the crowds at this summer’s ODI’s. Sutherland insists that the 2015 World Cup will pave the streets of Australian cricket with gold, but one has to wonder about the approach of letting ODI cricket in Australia flat-line in the meantime. In the next Australian summer, only five ODI's will be scheduled, down from ten. On an aesthetic level, this strategy also begs the question; if people stayed away from ODI’s between Australia and this summers’ tourists in droves, should we even bother manning the gates at blockbusters like Zimbabwe vs Bangldesh during World Cup 2015?
James and the Giant Dish
Sutherland claims to have minimised the risk of betting scandals in the Australian game, though sticking your nose directly into the betting industry trough is some way to go about allaying fan fears. To say he will “consider” banning in-broadcast betting infomercials by official betting partners is one thing, to follow through on that vague promise will be another altogether. I’m sure his hand will be sore from high fives if he’s able to rid us of the nagging presence of Bet365’s Billy Baxter next summer. At the very least, some notes to the eventual broadcast rights holders asking they not disguise such spivs as genuine members of the broadcasting team might be nice.
Cricket means a hell of a lot to fans of the game. On the evidence of the summer now closing, it means a considerable deal less to the people charged with promoting it and preserving it in Australia. These people owe us nothing less than their best and most sincere efforts. If that is what we are currently getting, then they don't look up to the task. At the very least, as mouthpieces of the game in Australia, they could try and not embarrass us with their public statements.
If they take issue with our assessments, we can just tell them that they've just quoted us out of context.