As the third season of the DLF Indian Premier League (IPL) gets under way, IPL chairman and commissioner Lalit Modi takes guard on where the league is headed, how much it is really worth, whether it is about cricket or entertainment and why the commissioner himself cannot stay out of controversy. Edited excerpts:
Your thoughts ahead of the season.
Sponsors, broadcasters, team owners, players—all stakeholders—have incorporated the best practices and left no stone unturned to deliver the best product there can be. We have the capability to deliver the best sporting league in the world.
Focused: Modi hopes to make IPL the world’s top sports league. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Critics still argue that the IPL is more hoopla than cricket.
The quality of cricket in the first two years is the best you could have got. We don’t tinker with what’s within the boundary. My job is to market the tournament, get more people into the stadium and convert them into cricket fans. We added the entertainment quotient so that younger fans, women and children take to the mix. Before IPL, cricket fans were 95% male; now it’s 60-40.
Some would still ask whether this was necessitated because there is insecurity about the T20 format.
There are countless entertainment options available today. There are hundreds of channels and everybody is wooing the same consumer. When we went to South Africa, we found that 70% of the people had never watched a cricket match but came to the stadium for IPL because of Bollywood and other entertainment. If they’ve watched one form of the game, they will get interested in others too. It is cricket which still had to engage them. But you have to drive people to watch cricket. Entertainment is just the door-opener; to satisfy and retain them as fans, the cricket has to be good.
There is concern among purists that the T20 mania might drive Tests and One Day Internationals (ODIs) out of business.
If you’ve seen the last few Tests and the ODIs that were played against South Africa, I don’t believe these formats are under threat. What we are trying is to grow new audiences. We need to invest in the five-day game and innovate in ODIs. My personal view is that there would be a dramatic gain in spectatorship if the five-day game was played at night.
It’s important to keep innovating. Twenty years ago, only one channel showed cricket. Today, there are scores of channels showing every match, every sport under the sun. So the consumer has multiple choices and we have to make sport available to them at their convenience. It’s availability of time that’s going down, not the interest in cricket. We have 1.2 billion people in the country and another 0.8 billion across the world who understand cricket. How we reach them and retain them is the key. We are exploring new avenues, using cutting-edge technology to go where no other sporting league in the world has gone.
The IPL is believed to be valued today at $4.2 billion (around Rs19,068 crore), ranking sixth among global sports properties.
Any number that you put on the table today looks like the number of yesterday. We hope to be the top sports league in the world, but it will take some time. A majority of sports properties have been around for decades, we are only two years old. We are now ranked 22 among the most innovative companies in the world (rated by Fast Company, a magazine that reports on innovation, technology, leadership). We hope to grow from here.
What makes the IPL so profitable?
Among all global sports leagues, our model is unique. The single biggest expense for any sport in the world is stadium cost, the second is players. We have zero cost for stadiums, which are provided free because the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) is a non-profit organization. We have kept the player cost high. The money our players get on a per-day basis is comparable to the best in the world. Some of them earn as much as (football player) Kaka if not more in terms of playing days. The value is going to keep increasing as we increase the viewership of the game, as people start identifying with teams. We have a long way to go in building fan bases like some soccer clubs but I wouldn’t be surprised if 10 years from now we are the most watched league in the world. We are the only league in the world where all teams make money and all teams are also equally rated. If you go to a Manchester United game, you know nine times out of 10 they will win. Go to one of our games, you don’t know which team will win! That’s what the consumer likes. You’ve got to understand what triggers emotion, triggers fan loyalty.
Why is it then that the IPL raises hackles among so many people? Pakistan could be because of subcontinent politics, but even the Australian and England boards seem unhappy.
The issue is of feeling left out. Nothing breeds unhappiness like somebody else’s success. At the end of the day, we are a billion-plus, cricket-fanatic country. Our economy is growing fast and this has a big role to play in the growth of any sport. Australia is a little bigger than Maharashtra in population, England perhaps smaller. The strength of the market determines the revenues. It’s clear to everybody that India is the superpower of cricket.
You don’t see a threat to IPL from similar leagues coming up in Australia or England?
This will only grow the market. You have the Bundesliga, the Spanish League, etc., but EPL (English Premier League) is still the biggest in football. All of them thrive in their respective markets. In cricket, we will thrive in ours, Australia in theirs.
You want to be a global league. How do you rationalize players from some countries not participating?
As administrators, we want the best players to be in the IPL. But we cannot guarantee this. It is the teams that decide who gives them value and this will be dictated by one mantra— availability. There are hundreds of excellent players around the world but owners want a cohesive team which can play together consistently, build value.
So this is not a problem peculiar to Pakistan?
No, this will be the case for all countries. Pakistan has some excellent players but their selection will also follow the availability factor. In the first year, there were several in the IPL. In the second, Pakistan did not give them NOCs (no-objection certificates), so franchise owners felt let down. This year, there were only one or two places available, so franchises didn’t want to take any risk. Going forward, when new squads are picked, it is highly unlikely that Pakistan players will be left out.
The IPL is also seen as Shylockian, trying to extract the last buck out of every situation, for instance, in dealing with the media.
Any administrator’s key job is to monetize the sport. We don’t do any better or worse than other leagues, like, say, the NBA (National Basketball Association). Sports can only thrive through exclusivity. Access to major sport is paid for by viewers around the world. Everything we make from the league goes back into the sport, into infrastructure or some other development. We protect our broadcasters and sponsors because it is our duty. They pay us big money. Why don’t other channels try and get signals of the NBA or Olympics at no cost? Why are there issues about signals only from IPL? Our guidelines are more relaxed than F1, NBA, NFL (National Football League). The money doesn’t come to us, it goes to the rights holders and teams who have invested heavily, and in turn, to the players, etc. It’s a chain. Our job is to protect this chain.
Why is Lalit Modi always mired in controversy?
Perhaps because I go out there and do what I have to do with conviction, which my board and I believe in. As spokesperson, I am also the deliverer of bad news. But it must be understood that these are not my personal decisions. I speak on behalf of the governing council of the IPL and the BCCI.
Are you competitive by nature?
I am competitive. We have a vision and it is my job to execute this. The stakeholders—team owners, players, broadcaster, sponsors—can pull in different directions. My job is to keep the conflicts away and put up a programme that is delivered with excellence. When you have a single focused vision to deliver, not everybody is going to be happy. The best part is every stakeholder is thriving. It’s people who are not part of us who are unhappy.
Which also means ruffling feathers within the BCCI?
If you are unwavering in your pursuit, this will happen. But if my governing council and board is convinced about what I am delivering, that’s good enough for me.
Are you a genuine cricket lover, a glamour-struck administrator or somebody who exploits cricket for money and power?
If I wasn’t a cricket lover, I wouldn’t have tried so hard for the last 14 years to get this going. Money comes and goes with what you create. Power is neither given so easily nor can you take it just like that. Along with it also comes responsibility, delivery and scrutiny, so you’ve got to be at the top of the game all the time. What gives me a high is to make the emotional connect which makes the IPL a favourite of masses. Not many people are able in their lifetime to build a brand where millions can get a strong emotional connect.
David Stern of the NBA earns close to $11 million. What does the commissioner of the IPL earn?
He spends a lot, from his own pocket! Actually, all members of the BCCI do honorary work; we enjoy doing it.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes a fortnightly column on sports, Beyond Boundaries, for .Mint