Poor attendance besets competition

3/25/2011 - Cricket

The 2007 Cricket World Cup in the West Indies was criticized for many things, one of which was the noticeably small crowds at many of the matches. Excuses focused on ticket prices being too high and that fans were restricted from bringing musical instruments into the ground, killing the local traditional atmosphere. Another reason that was tossed around was that India and Pakistan, the biggest drawing cards, were eliminated in the group stage and so not only did advertising revenue suffer, but so did attendance.

Perhaps it was assumed that because India is the most obsessed of all major cricket nations, the current World Cup would be played in front of packed houses. Sure enough, when one of the host nations is on the field, the stands are alive and the atmosphere befits the stage.

Meanwhile, when a host team is not involved in one of the matches, the grounds have been sparsely populated. Television commentators have tried to put a positive spin on things, with the fallback line informing audiences, "It's a good crowd for two neutral teams." The reality is that it's a poor crowd for two teams playing in a World Cup.

One of the peculiar aspects of the format for this Cricket World Cup compared to the FIFA World Cup is that it was not configured for competitive balance between countries in order to give every team a realistically fair shot to advance. Instead it was rigged in order to ensure that the top eight nations would advance to the knockout stage, thereby guaranteeing more television ratings and, more importantly, advertising revenue.

The importance of television ad revenue over stadium attendance is evident in the scheduled duration of the event. For a standard ODI series between teams, there are typically two or three days off in between matches. However, some teams have had seven days off in between matches during the World Cup in order to ensure maximum TV exposure for everyone. Putting aside the fact the lack of suspense and the overall predictability of the group stage discourages fans from traveling, the logistical aspects of the event also deny a sizable amount of people from supporting their team in person unless they are retired with a very healthy bank account.

Consider the fact an England fan wishing to follow the team at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa would have been able to see the team play three times in 12 days during the group stage. Two weeks could easily be gotten off from work while match tickets, flights and accommodation could be organized without too much fuss.

Compare this to the plight of the England fan at this year's Cricket World Cup. England has been the one team in this tournament that has played thrilling contests every single time. But to be able to see just its group games it would take 24 days, from the first match to the last, to take in the action, not to mention finding something to do to keep busy for all the off days in between. Double the matches, double the days, double the money needed to spend on everything, not to mention trying to find a way to get that much time off from work.

It's rumored that the 10-team 2015 Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand will have a single-group round-robin first round modeled after the 1992 competition. How many fans have the money and the time to track a team in person for nine group games presumably spread over 36 days?

England's cricket support troop known as "The Barmy Army" is famous for traveling by the thousands on overseas tours. Yet, they've had significantly fewer fans at this World Cup. Despite all the drama in England's games, the atmosphere at the ground has been lackluster outside of the pair of matches against India and Bangladesh.

That's perhaps the most disappointing part about it all. The fans in India are famous for their passion, but it's reserved for the national team only. Stories abound of the paltry turnouts for domestic trophy competitions within India, but it's a bit puzzling when no one can be bothered to fill the seats to watch the reigning world champions, Australia. It would be unfathomable to have the same thing happen to Spain at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

While the excitement has been present on the field, it's been inconsistent in the stands. People are eager to watch the Cricket World Cup, but they don't seem eager to travel to it. That needs to change in order for the sport to continue growing.

Peter Della Penna is an American-born and raised cricket journalist who writes for ESPNcricinfo.com and DreamCricket.com. His work has also appeared in "The Wisden Cricketer" and "Wisden Cricketers" Almanack.