It has been called the future of cricket, and it has also been called the death of cricket. Love it or hate it, you just can’t ignore the Indian Premier League (IPL) that, with a combination of smart selling and even smarter positioning (whoever heard of sports teams having actors as brand ambassadors before?), has captured the mindspace of tens of millions of Indians who swear by cricket—and this, even before a single ball has been bowled.
In some ways, IPL isn’t just about the reinvention of cricket. It is about the transformation of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)—a lumbering, slumbering organization that, until sometime ago, had lots of money and boasted growing clout in the global cricketing establishment, but not much else.
Then came Lalit Modi, a vice-president at BCCI. And, then, came the Indian Cricket League, Essel Group founder Subhash Chandra’s “private” Twenty20 cricket league. BCCI was quick to use its status as the administrator of cricket in India to classify the league “unofficial”, even “rebel”—that means cricketers who play for ICL cannot be picked even for their states. It also managed to convince the boards of most countries to do the same. And BCCI also announced that it would launch its own Twenty20 league.
All that happened before India unexpectedly won last year’s world Twenty20 championship. Had the country lost in the initial rounds, IPL could well have remained a non-starter—but India won. The tournament, held in South Africa, also proved that there was an audience for Twenty20 matches. Here was one form of cricket where people could actually work during the day, spend 3 hours in the evening watching a match (one where there would always be a result), and maybe go pub-hopping with friends later. No other form of cricket had allowed that in the past: Test cricket is a five-day affair, and one-day cricket is an all-day one.
Photoimaging by Manoj Madhavan / Mint
In some ways, the concept of IPL isn’t new. Modi, the league’s chairman and commissioner and probably one of the most powerful men in world cricket today, says that for a long time, he has dreamed of city-based teams. He floated the idea in 1996. For nearly a decade, he did little, perhaps because he was not part of the group that ran Indian cricket. And then, as 2005 came to an end, so did former BCCI chief Jagmohan Dalmiya’s reign.
In early 2006, Modi, elected vice-president of BCCI, talked about his plans in an interview with Tehelka magazine: “The intercity cricket league is going to happen. It’s my next big project...”
However, when asked about whether it would take on the Twenty20 format that had proved popular in England, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Modi seemed less than enthused. “Why not 25-25? Why not 30-30? The issue right now is that the countries advocating it (Twenty20) are only England and Australia. They have a drop in stadium attendance... We have enough crowds.”
Then, events overtook him and culminated with India’s unexpected triumph in South Africa last year.
Modi discovered he didn’t have to sell Twenty20 to cricket-hungry Indian audiences. They were already sold.
IPL has been on an overdrive since. Big money was to be made on everything the league touched.
The game’s observers have been divided on what it can mean for international cricket—attracted by lucre, will players retire earlier? How can Andrew Symonds and Ricky Ponting get along while playing for Australia, given the disparity in the bids placed on them? Has the game left its soul at the door? How will city-based teams invoke passion? These are questions asked everywhere, for Indian cricket has, in one year, reached out to every cricketing nation, and altered the fabric of its cricketing structure. The game is not likely to be the same ever again.
“The Twenty20 format has caught on because India won it,” says R.C Venkateish, managing director, ESPN Star Sports, the broadcast sponsors of the Twenty20 World Cup last year. “After the World Cup fiasco, cricket in India hit rock bottom, both commercially and in terms of public interest. The interest in Twenty20 and its future has been defined entirely by India’s win,” he adds.
So, now, India has two competing leagues for this new cricketing format—Essel Group’s ICL, which is in its second season, and DLF IPL, the star-studded tournament backed by BCCI, which starts on 18 April.
On the face of it, IPL has many things going for it—the backing of ICC and, hence, A-list cricketers, big Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta as franchise owners, and tonnes of money, with big corporations such as Reliance Industries Ltd and DLF Ltd buying into the action. But, even as the buzz around IPL gets louder, the question that has passed every cricket-loving individual’s mind at some point is: Just how far will IPL take Indian cricket?
“IPL is here to stay,” says Modi. “We are very optimistic that DLF IPL will turn into a global phenomenon and help take cricket to the next level. Kind of like what Kerry Packer and Channel 9 did to cricket earlier,” says Modi, referring to the Australian media tycoon who popularized one-day cricket.
“What is similar between Modi and Packer is that they both represent the spirit of private enterprise, and they both spell success,” says Harsha Bhogle, one of India’s leading cricket commentators. According to him, the Twenty20 format is the natural step in cricket after Test matches and the one-day international format. “And IPL is a sign of cricket evolvement; there is something in it for everyone,” Bhogle adds. He claims that apart from the large million-dollar franchises involved, IPL will spark a revolution in cricket, with more people in smaller towns of India getting noticed and involved.
Some experts, however, caution that the amount of money going into it could well work against the game at the national level. “Cricketers will be more interested in playing for IPL than their nation because this is where the big money is,” says a senior executive of BCCI who does not wish to be identified.
If IPL goes the way of the English Premier League (EPL), adds the executive, coaches of individual teams could possibly even prohibit cricketers from playing for the country. “Also, young cricketers such as an Ishant Sharma, who is being paid $950,000 (around Rs3.8 crore) to play for the Kolkata team, could very well retire much before his time. Even older players who have been stars of India’s cricket team could resign after sealing their fortunes with IPL.”
IPL chief executive Sundar Raman doesn’t agree: “IPL will not work in a negative way for the team. In fact, it will help discover new and young talent. As for early retirement, these cricketers are committed to the game of cricket, not money.”
But, Raman says, the big challenge with IPL for BCCI would be to change the loyalties of Indians from nation to city-centric teams. “We don’t expect it to happen overnight, but it is our job to work on it.”
ESPN’s Venkateish is not as optimistic on this front. “Indians still have national loyalties, and not local loyalties. How passionate are we about Ranji trophy that plays state against state?” he asks. “IPL has a good future, but it will take time for people to break affinities; that is the heritage we have. After all, it took EPL 80 years to build the kind of diehard loyalty it now has,” adds Venkateish.
But, Sony Entertainment Television Pvt. Ltd, IPL’s telecast partner which has invested close to Rs4,000 crore for the rights along with Singapore-based sports marketing company World Sports Group (WSG), is not ready to wait. “If IPL is not a success from the very first day, it won’t sustain. And if it doesn’t pay off in the first year, it will never pay off,” says Kunal Dasgupta, chief executive, Sony. “Going by the amount of investment and effort that has gone into making sure IPL is a success, it should not let us down,” he adds.
Advertisers share Dasgupta’s view, having emptied their pockets to gain advertising rights and having paid that little extra to maintain category exclusivity in some cases.
BCCI has garnered close to Rs4,400 crore in sponsorship deals, and Sony has finalized the list of advertisers, selling 10-second spots for as much as Rs2.5 lakh for its two presenting and four associate sponsors.
In comparison, the ICC World Cup held in March-April 2007 commanded Rs1-1.5 lakh for a 10-second slot in India.
“Advertisers are happy to pay so much because they know that IPL will give them the eyeballs. The format has India’s two passions involved, Bollywood and cricket, so it is a sure shot for advertisers, even if they have not been actively involved in cricket before this,” says Emmanuel Upputuru, national creative director of advertising agency Publicis India.
The Bollywood ingredient has succeeded in bringing on board, as sponsors, brands such as Coca-Cola and even luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer, which have not traditionally been associated with the sport.
While Coca-Cola will be one of the associate sponsors on television, the watch brand plans to launch special IPL timepieces which will be worn by the Kolkata Knight Riders, and will also be available in stores. “The issue with associating with cricket is that it is a mass sport. But IPL is a big brand and, besides, Shah Rukh is associated with it, so it works for us,” Manishi Sanwal, general manager, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy India, the Indian arm of the firm that owns the Tag Heuer brand, had told Mint earlier.
However, some traditional cricket advertisers, such as telecom service provider Bharti Airtel Ltd and consumer durables giant LG Electronics India Pvt. Ltd, have not yet bought the idea of the new league. “We have decided to wait and watch this year,” says V. Ramachandran, director of sales and marketing, LG Electronics India.
Dheeraj Malhotra, ICC and IPL tournament manager and IPL marketing manager, says it is the unique positioning of the games that has contributed to the hype around IPL. “We are positioning IPL as entertainment, like a 3-hour movie,” he says. Malhotra adds that match venues will also see movie launches and Bollywood performances.
And, to make sure IPL is indeed entertaining, the eight teams have got a head start on their campaigns—a heady cocktail of cricket and Bollywood. The Kolkata team—owned by actors Khan, who is also the team brand ambassador, and Juhi Chawla—has brought in crooners Bappi Lahiri and Usha Uthup to produce songs and videos for the team. Rajasthan Royals has bought Bollywood playback singer Ila Arun’s song Halla Bol as its tune, while Kings XI Punjab has got singer Daler Mehndi to do the bhangra for it. GMR-owned Delhi Daredevils has appointed actor Akshay Kumar as brand ambassador, while Chennai Super Kings has signed on former cricketer Krishnamachari Srikkanth and young Tamil movie stars Nayanthara and Vijay as the faces of the team.
Vijay Mallya, the flamboyant entrepreneur who owns the Bangalore Royal Challengers, has actors Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone promoting his team in a music video.
While IPL executives dismiss the Bollywood quotient as “harmless fun”, cricket experts believe it is not entirely necessary. “I think initially no one knows what will work for IPL, so everyone involved is just trying whatever works. But cricket is too big an entity in itself to need any outside help,” says Bhogle.
Anik Basu contributed to this story.