Friday, April 29, 2011

The Cost of Watching Cricket in Comfort

During the final of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, television cameras zoomed in to capture the rare-but-fleeting expressions of Reliance Industries' Chairman Mukesh Ambani and his companions, including actor Aamir Khan, cheering from corporate boxes.

As images of Bollywood stars and CEOs of India's business houses become common during cricket matches, their comfortable perches have become a prized commodity for India's top-tier cricket stadiums and owners of league cricket franchises, selling for as much as $1.25 million per corporate box for a 10-year period.

These boxes or luxury suites carve out an enclosure with spacious and comfortable seating for those willing to pay a hefty premium. Typically, companies pick up a box, which has a dozen or more seats, and consider it a cost of doing business. Companies use the boxes to wine and dine clients and reward top-performing employees.

In India, the trend is taking off just now as India Inc. deepens its bonds with cricket via sponsorship of local teams and cricket matches, and contracts with players who become brand ambassadors.

An Indian asset-management company, for example, which asked not to be named, used box seats as a reward for top distributors of their products. Investment banks find it a great way to network. Several banks took at least one box, and some several boxes, at the recent cricket World Cup final in Mumbai that the Indian team won.

"Indian cricket is really the only thing that's gone well this year when you think about it," said one investment banker, reflecting on a year marred by volatile capital markets.

Cricket stadiums, including the famous Eden Gardens in Kolkata and Mumbai's Wankhede stadiums, have recently renovated these boxes into suites and swanky seating areas in a bid to cash in on the demand. For a long time, stadiums didn't have the infrastructure to accommodate many corporate boxes and the facilities to support them. These done-up boxes now offer everything from fine dining to a special welcome.

Eden Gardens -- the home ground of the Indian Premier League team Kolkata Knight Riders – recently, more than doubled its corporate boxes to 32 from 12, previously.

The Cricket Association of Bengal, which owns the stadium, auctioned 10-year leases on the boxes for national and international cricket tournaments. The cost can go up to seven million rupees ($158,445) per box for the entire period.

Some stadiums like Mumbai's Wankhede, which hosted the cricket World Cup final, charge a lot more. Each of the 57 boxes at that stadium were auctioned for up to 55 million rupees ($1.25 million) for a 10-year contract, the price of 24 of these boxes included that of the annual league games.

Companies, stadiums and team owners were unwilling to talk about who buys these corporate boxes.

But income for the stadiums doesn't stop there. The cricket league, which is playing its fourth season in April and May, has been a big draw to businesses, offering them a chance to get even more directly and closely linked to cricket as team owners and sponsors. Local franchises also pay the cricket associations, which own these stadiums, lease for the home ground during the season. In turn, the franchise owners sell stadium tickets and boxes to fans.

The Kolkata Knight Riders, for instance, sells passes for the Knights Pavilion, their special seating section, at prices starting from 200,000 rupees ($4,498) per box of 16 seats for a match to 1.8 million rupees ($40,743) for the entire season at its Platinum Lounge. The seats at the high-end Platinum Lounge, the owners claim, offer the best view and a visit from the team's owners, Hollywood actors Shah Ruche Khan and Judi Chula.

"We are getting a great response for these corporate boxes," said Joy Bhattacharya, a spokesman for the Kolkata Knight Riders.

The details of the pricing and process of buying tickets for corporate boxes at various stadiums differ, depending on how the state cricket associations decide to sell these seats during cricket tournaments. However, during the league matches, the owners of the franchises decide how the seats are sold in their respective home grounds. Each franchise prices tickets based on local demand.

A Rajasthan Royals league team official confirmed that corporate boxes are an important source of revenue and strategically benefits them as a business. The Delhi Daredevils, the local team of the National Capital Region, says corporate box sales make up 15% of their total revenue.

Other teams like the Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Daredevils have expanded the idea to include luxury suites for corporations willing to spare the extra dime. These boxes cost more than two times the regular corporate boxes. The Rajasthan Royals offers, as part of its package, passes for exclusive after parties that the players may attend.

The Delhi Daredevils prices its uber-hospitality areas up at 25,000 rupees ($564) per seat for a match. Each box can hold between 23 and 57 seats.

Banks, other financial institutions, consumer goods makers, and auto manufacturers have bought corporate boxes and super hospitality areas at Feroz Shah Kotla cricket stadium for this league season, said P. Phaneendra, general manager of marketing for the Delhi Daredevils, who didn't want to disclose any names.

"While there is no way to definitely know what is discussed inside the corporate boxes, we know people do talk beyond cricket, sometimes it is business, politics or something else," he said.

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