The money of sport

How ABDV and other cricketers can invest in their careers now

This is a spin-off article from one I did for Cricinfo on ABDV.

When a massive underdog wins, people still believe in the spirit of sport overcoming everything.

It allows us - even for a moment - to continue to believe in the miracle of sport. And there is a truth in this, sometimes the ball bounces a weird way, an injury slows down a significant player, or just the schedule ruins the better team.

If we knew who would win before each match every time, it would make sports betting a lot easier, and sport wouldn’t matter.

But most of those favourites have access to more money. And there is a reason that sports worldwide have been improving over the decades as money has gotten larger. Players who once fit gym sessions in around their day jobs - those who even did them - now have fitness plans managed by specialists backed by science.

Think about the 100metre sprint. We are used to it getting quicker. And we have put that down to the evolution of athletes. But when you factor in performance-enhancing drugs, better tracks, designed suits and upgraded running spikes, scientists have admitted that the difference between Jesse Owens and Usain Bolt is tiny, despite the 80-year gap.

Money has always been in sport, even right through the amateur era. But it didn’t always get to the players, and certainly not on this level.

In cricket, we know that facilities, training and professionalism matter.

We had two incredible eras back to back that were both inspired by various forms of professionalism. The West Indies were an amateur team at home. But through English County and club cricket, and then eventually, Kerry Packer’s rebel league, they became professional. They had a personal trainer with them that made an enormous difference as well.

Then the next country that dominated was Australia. They started their revolution with an academy to improve their players but were also the most professional cricket team we had seen until that point. State players were also made professional, and the entire men’s system was upgraded as they took over cricket. They would have had Shane Warne either way. But would Adam Gilchrist have stayed around until his late 20s to wait for an Australian spot?

There has also been an immense improvement of English cricket as they started using money to develop their players better.

But it’s no longer just teams; Shan Masood and Zach Crawley have upgraded themselves even outside their systems through access to family wealth.

But while we may see more Crawley and Masood type situations, what will also happen is that players who have made it will now spend a lot of their money investing in themselves. After brief struggling spells, Carlos Brathwaite and Chris Gayle both hired personal trainers. Kevin Pietersen used Graham Ford as a personal batting coach, Alastair Cook has Gary Palmer. Jesse Ryder travelled to the IPL with a psychologist.

Self-improvement in cricket is not just about money. Dennis Lillee rebuilt his body when still pretty much an amateur. But the risk of doing it without a safety net has gone.

We have not yet got to the point of cricketers with entourages like tennis or golf pros, but we are on our way there. T20 is pushing us further through the freelance nature of it. But there are plenty of examples of even Test players going towards this.

I was thinking about all of this when I wrote my piece on AB de Villiers for ESPN. The piece is focusing more on players beating the ageing curve. But it’s access to money that is allowing that. It makes sense for de Villiers to invest in whatever he can to continue to play at the highest level he can. Little things like ensuring he can wicket keep for the next couple of years because having that duel skill means he’s worth a little more money. That he can keep hitting sixes because T20 cricket is going to be more of that. And if he stays fit enough to take quick singles, which gives him an advantage over other fast scoring players who are stationary.

There will be a bunch of different ways he can do all of this; he’s probably already starting talking to sports scientists and other athletes who have extended their career.

It’s not a new thing for older players to remain in the game longer. They usually have skills that age better than normal athletes and can hide their weaknesses better. Plus teams give them a longer rope than a replacement-level player who is struggling.

But earlier players were staying in the game in reduced roles, or through love of the sport. Now players are playing with their performances still really high for longer through the access to all the money they have made.

One of the fascinating late careers is baseball pitcher Jacob deGrom. This is 538 on him,

“What is also interesting about deGrom is that he’s doing all this at 32 years old, an age when most pitchers are in decline. Already elite, deGrom just keeps getting better. In particular, he keeps improving a skill that often diminishes with time: fastball velocity. Pitching speed — which directly correlates to opposing batters’ offensive performance — typically begins to slow in a pitcher’s late 20s, and the decline accelerates in his 30s. But through games played on Sept. 14, deGrom has the speediest average fastball ever for a given season, among starting pitchers who’ve tossed at least 30 innings in a season since 2008. He also owns three of the top five seasons by average fastball velocity among players 30 and older. In fact, deGrom has increased his fastball speed in four straight seasons and in each of his age-30-something years.”

We now have science in sport, and the money is of such a high level that our best athletes can tap into it.  There will still be upsets, surprise new players and all the things that we love in sport. But the best players will stick around a lot longer.

Which will mean even more money for them.