The Economics of Smriti Mandhana

After the Women's Premier League (WPL) auction on Monday, Smriti Mandhana, the elegant left hander and No. 3 batter in the ICC T20I rankings, became the most expensive player in women's cricket. Smriti's economic bonanza is a culmination of quite the journey for the women's game. It is also a reflection of how the economics of being a cricketer, and more specifically, a female cricketer has evolved. Playing professional sport is entering, what in economics parlance is called, a winner-take-all market, or being subject to 'superstar economics'. In short, this translates to the reality that that while many will vie for a place in that market, only a few will be successful, and as a corollary, the rewards from the profession will accrue disproportionately to the top performers, the superstars, as it were. In the WPL auction, the top 20 players sold out of the total 87, received 64% of the total purse of Rs. 600 million that was available.

Superstar economics can be seen in markets ranging from book publishing, to movie production, to music, including, but not limited to the success of, say, Rihanna. The advice aspiring writers, musicians, and movie stars often receive is 'don't give up your day job'. The WPL auction that made Smriti the most expensive player is a microcosm of that effect. Close to 500 cricketers registered to be picked at the auction, but there were only a maximum of 90 spots across 5 teams on offer. Naturally, many missed out.

But the silver lining is that there are those who got picked, paving the possibility that more viable pathways are going to open up for anyone aspiring to pursue cricket as a profession. When Smriti started taking interest in cricket, the case was much more difficult to make, particularly as a woman, because women's cricket as a profession was practically non-existent. Now, the odds are much better and although the profession as a whole remains one with a very narrow top of the pyramid still, the base seems to widening.

In a winner take all market, small bits of advantage and luck can add up to huge gains. And Smriti's case again holds interesting insight into that. Without taking anything away from her preternatural talent, her journey had two key early economic ingredients. She was born into a cricket loving family (her brother was already a serious cricketer, having represented Maharashtra at the U19 level), which made access to the game and equipment, often the obstacles for aspiring sportspeople, easier. Secondly, she copied her brother's batting style, batting left-handed, despite being a natural right-hander, a trait that her father honed into what in economics can be called a comparative advantage. Shriniwas Mandhana told the BBC that he encouraged her to continue batting left handed because, "Being a leftie gives anyone an edge in cricket, but even more so if you are from a country like India where the competition is so huge." He obviously understood the value of scarcity and having a comparative advantage. That tiny headstart combined with Smriti's talent and hardwork eventually culminated in the economically showpiece moment that was her name being called out first at the auction. Her dad says - "In retrospect, I can only be glad I made that decision because it is her batting that's brought her to where she is."

But that's the supply side of the story. On the demand side, Smriti becoming the most expensive player may have had something to do with the fact that her name was called first at the auction. As a sought after player, being put in front of 5 teams with a purse of Rs. 120 million each to spend, some hot bids quickly came in. Clearly the franchises were willing to break the bank to get her (RCB eventually spent almost 25% of their purse to land her) because she is a triple threat - an ace cricketer, captaincy candidate, and marketable star. Incidentally, those qualities could also apply to her senior (and her national captain), Harmanpreet Kaur, who was second on the list. Mumbai landed her, though, for about half the cost. That's where the last bit of the puzzle comes in - auction dynamics, or in more econ parlance, game theory. If Harman's name had been called first, she may have seen aggressive bidding and a higher price, but after RCB splurged on Smriti, the bids cooled down a bit, and Mumbai landed a bargain. In auction language, Mumbai may have had a higher private value for Harman (they may have been willing to bid higher if someone else had topped their Rs. 18 million bid), but landed her for less than that.

All that is to take nothing away from either Smriti or Harman, both of whom have been trailblazers and pioneers in the women's game following in the footsteps of the giant strides taken by the likes of Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami whose efforts made it possible for women in India to dream of cricket as a career. Superstars and their economics cannot guarantee disproportionate success for everyone, but what their existence does is to create a larger base for aspirants. Like Rajasthan's Anisha Bano, who bowled with a tennis ball when out grazing her family's goats, and eventually played for her state in the Challengers Trophy (a sort of a launch pad for the next generation of talent to be spotted).

The lasting economic impact and legacy of Smriti's price tag is going to the space for the likes of Anisha to dream a little bigger.

Write a comment ...