New Delhi: The Indian Premier League has in three short years morphed into a money-making behemoth with its showbiz-style mix of cricket, Bollywood and big business.
But the corporate dollars that have driven the league’s exponential expansion are now under scrutiny in a widening tax probe, though most experts agree that the IPL itself is here to stay.
Launched in 2008, the tournament — based on the shortened, made-for-TV Twenty20 format — has attracted the sport’s top international stars to a country where cricket is followed with religious fervour.
Under the stewardship of flamboyant chairman Lalit Modi, who was suspended on Sunday, it has been marketed so effectively that even the lexicon of the game has been changed in an effort to maximise corporate sponsorship.
Thus a six in the IPL is known as a “DFL Maximum” after India’s largest real estate developer, while the sponsorship of Citibank means that a wicket is termed a “Citi Moment of Success”.
Another IPL innovation was to introduce glamorous foreign cheerleaders, although their skimpy outfits and raunchy routines ruffled some feathers in what remains a deeply conservative country.
According to Indian cricket writer Rahul Bhattacharya, the IPL is the ultimate expression of sport in a materialist age. “Its relationship with sport is not of participant but consumer. It holds nothing sacred. The IPL knows that it competes not against sport but general entertainment,” Bhattacharya wrote.
While the brazen branding and the shortened format have upset purists, their complaints have been drowned out by the plaudits of the league’s passionate supporters.
The opening game of the 2010 tournament between Deccan Chargers and Kolkata Knight Riders attracted 42 million viewers — a 41% increase on the inaugural tournament opener — according to television ratings agency (TAM).
Those are numbers that advertisers drool over, and have ensured that the money keeps pouring in, with barely a passing nod to the global financial crisis.
As a result, the IPL’s brand value has more than doubled since last year to an estimated $4.13 billion, according to a study conducted by independent consultancy Brand Finance.
When two new franchises were offered this year to expand the current roster of eight IPL teams, one of them went for $370 million.
In comparison, Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich paid $233 million in 2003 for the English Premier League side Chelsea, one of the top clubs in Europe.
Before launching the first tournament in 2008, the IPL organisers studied the English league and sought to emulate its mix of high-profile overseas stars, homegrown talent and foreign coaches.
Where the IPL went a step further was to bring in a host of A-list celebrities from the only thing that rivals cricket as a national obsession — the Indian film industry.
Three Bollywood superstars — Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Shilpa Shetty — own IPL teams and images of them and other Bollywood glitterati watching games are given a lot of air time in live match broadcasts.
The prime-time matches have become so popular that Bollywood producers try to avoid major film releases during the six-week IPL season for fear of damaging their box office take.
“You have to hand it to the IPL,” said Jiniti Shah, vice president of TV ratings firm aMap. “They married these two Indian mainstays, cricket and Bollywood, and packaged them in a short, prime-time format that caters perfectly to modern entertainment demands,” Shah told AFP.
Much of the credit belongs to Modi, 46, a polarising figure who was suspended by Indian cricket authorities just after Sunday’s IPL final as the government probes allegations of tax-dodging and match-fixing. Detractors portray him as a brash and arrogant, while admirers call him a visionary who created the IPL from scratch.