IIt remains one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history: a star-studded rocket man soars above the Los Angeles Coliseum at the 1984 opening ceremony, ushering in a new era of commercialism and momentum. And while history is unlikely to repeat itself when the Games come back in five years, it will rhyme. Because LA 2028 plans to be big and bold again.
This became even clearer on Monday when the LA bid team exclusively confirmed to the Guardian that five new sports – cricket, flag football, baseball/softball, lacrosse and squash – would be proposed for 2028. Most observers had expected only two to join, given the pressure they would put on the International Olympic Committee’s quota of 10,500 athletes. Ultimately, however, both sides saw the benefits of compromise—and saw that the dollar signs stretched from Hollywood Boulevard to Madison Avenue.
However, the negotiations were not easy. The IOC wanted cricket. LA pushed hard for flag football and baseball/softball. Neither side had much interest in the other’s preferences. There were also bitter disputes over money and numbers, and relations became so strained that a decision was delayed for almost a month. But in the end an uneasy peace was negotiated.
For the IOC, the benefits of cricket in the Olympic tent are obvious. As things currently stand, the TV rights for the games in India amount to a handful of millions. According to Michael Payne, who was the IOC’s marketing and television director for 20 years, more than $150 million can now realistically be expected.
“TV revenue from India is peanuts at the moment,” he says. “And if you’re Thomas Bach at the IOC, with a mission to promote the Olympic movement around the world, you look at your globe and you’re doing pretty well, except for one glaring geographical hole: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And one way to get around this is to include their sports religion in the Olympic program.”
But Payne, who is one of the most astute observers of the Olympic movement, says it is even more important for cricket to be included in LA’s program now that it has a real chance of becoming a fixture at the Games. “Would cricket have arrived in Brisbane in 2032? No question. But then it would have been risky to remain a one-off show and cricket would have had no momentum to be included in the 2036 programme. Now, if it is successful in 2028, it has a pretty good chance of being fully included in the Olympic program.”
There are some who doubt that cricket needs the Olympics. After all, the Indian Premier League is one of the biggest leagues in the world, with players earning an average salary of $5.3 million. But Payne disagrees. “To understand what this could do to catapult cricket onto the world stage, go back to the Barcelona Games in 1992 and look at the success of basketball. There is a night and day difference between the state of the NBA internationally before and after 1992.”
The numbers prove it. On opening day of the 1991-92 season, NBA rosters included just 23 international players from 18 countries. Last season it was 120 out of 40 players.
But what about flag football, a variation of American football with five-player teams in which tackles are made by pulling a flag from a player’s belt? Many are unimpressed that a sport that is rarely practiced outside the United States is getting an Olympic spot. Although Payne is not a true believer, he can see the benefits. “When it was first mentioned to me, I thought, ‘Come on, who smokes what?’ But imagine what six months of NFL ascendancy would mean for NBC, their Olympic coverage and Los Angeles? It will create the noise to sell airtime and lead to a massive advertising campaign. It’s a real game changer.”
Some tensions inevitably remain. In the run-up to Paris 2024, the IOC has attracted a lot of attention for the inclusion of urban sports. Yet LA has abandoned breakdancing, perhaps the most urban sport of all. Then there’s the question of athlete numbers – and whether some sports might lose medal events to ensure the 10,500 quota is met.
None of these thorny issues are expected to come to the surface when the IOC meeting takes place in Mumbai on Sunday. There the five sports for LA will be ratified – and the smiles will invariably flash.