Regardless of tonight’s cricket outcome against Pakistan, the Indian boys in blue have succeeded in getting the game back in the good graces of a country where it is often likened to religion and yet had been trashed and abandoned by many fans and some sponsors following the team’s ICC World Cup debacle earlier this year.
Proof that India is once again a nation of believers: Passengers reportedly begged an Air India flight to delay departure from New Delhi on Saturday night until the penultimate overs were bowled. (An Air India spokesman denied the flight being late over this, however).
Back in the game: Cricket fans in Patna celebrate India’s entry into the final of the Twenty20 World Cup on Sunday
A popular furniture store in Kolkata advertised a bed and a dining set, nothing much to do with the game, under the slogan: “Mobel Twenty20 Dhamaka.” And, perhaps most importantly, those who promote and package India’s cricketers and their game, who not too long ago distanced themselves after the World Cup fiasco, now assert they never—really never—said cricket was dead.
The renaissance has implications for the future of the sport and its promotion in India. Everyone’s excited over a Twenty20 format that caters to and mirrors these harried times. The tournament’s following “is a revelation”, says Balu Nayar, managing director of sports management and entertainment company International Management Group (IMG), which is designing the new Twenty20 Indian Premier League, promoted by the Indian cricket authorities.
In a recent Mint interview, Nayar was categorical in saying that his company wouldn’t look at cricket in India for some time but would, instead, concentrate on sports infrastructure, such as golf courses. Yet, the recent popularity is inspiring IMG to once again turn to cricket.
“We can’t get back in a hurry, but now we are back with a bang in India,” he said. The format opened new avenues, such as managing teams through franchisees; it’s a concept Balu is finalizing now for the new League.
Sponsors and media buyers also are strategizing and theorizing on how to cash in on shorter matches—which end up having fewer commercials—attracting a more dedicated and diverse and seemingly growing audience.
For instance, Reliance Mobile has sponsored cheerleaders, with the company logo emblazoned on their outfits, dancing away through the match, drawing instant eyeballs and an innovative brand plug.
WPP Plc.’s ad buying arm GroupM general manager M.K. Machaiah is clear that the format is definitely more viable.
“A lot of investors were hurt after (India’s loss in) the World Cup, but the TVRs (television viewer ratings) have shown Indians are still interested in cricket,” he notes.
Tonight’s match could easily top television ratings of the exciting India-Pakistan match of 14 September at the Twenty20 World Cup, which ended in an unusual tie-breaker and generated a TVR of 12 and peaked at 15.2, according to broadcaster ESPN Software India Pvt. Ltd. Tonight’s match is on ESPN and Star Cricket.
“We could not have asked for a better final,” said R.C. Venkateish, ESPN India managing director. “We expect to garner record-breaking viewership numbers.”
But ESPN isn’t saying whether expectations would goad it to command higher rates for advertisement slots in future games. While very few inventories were still available for the final match, a spokesperson said the decision whether to quote higher rates in the future would be made only when the complete viewership figures from previous matches become available.
Quoting figures released by media research agency TAM Media Research, ESPN said the combined share of the two channels stood at 47.2% during the first India-Pakistan match. Of this, ESPN contributed 26.7% while Star Cricket contributed 20.5%.
None of the content on the nearest competitors—Zee TV and Star Plus, for example—broke the double-digit percentage shares during the match period (9.30pm to 1am).
Cricket’s phenomenal comeback can be gauged from 2006 figures from TAM: last year, the most watched were the regional mass channels with 26.8%, with Hindi movie channels at 10.5%, and sports trailing at 3.8%.
During the regular 50-over World Cup in the West Indies, which was telecast on four Indian channels, the highest TVR was 1.6 (on Max).
The current success, most observers agree, is linked to the packaging of the matches and the fresh appeal, nerve and verve of a relatively raw team, bereft of usual stars such as Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman.
Balu conceded he, along with most of the nation, had “apprehensions” over the Indian team’s fate and the fact that the format seemed decidedly one-sided—in the batsman’s favour.
Yet, the team in general, and young bowlers such as Rudra Pratap Singh and S. Sreesanth in particular, have floored everyone.
Said GroupM’s Machaiah: “It’s like the post-2000 team... There was the betting scandal, senior players had been dropped, it was a young team,” he recalls. This team, he said, under captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, reminds him of those days, boys who wooed an entire nation within just two weeks.
Machaiah isn’t ready to declare whether the game has created a new fan base, namely first-time women viewers, apart from luring back the old fans. While he says “we have to study the ratings later,” Machaiah does concede the new format had revenue generating potential.