Racked by scandals and scams and riven by controversy, the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 cricket tournament faces an uncertain future. Advertising rates for the sixth season of IPL that’s scheduled to start in April are down 20%. Television viewership, too, has been on a steady decline with data from TAM Media Research showing how TRPs for this version of cricket-on-speed fell from a high of 4.81 in the inaugural 2008 season to about 3.2 for last year’s version. In many ways IPL is fast beginning to resemble the English Football League of yore, before it morphed into the English Premier League (EPL), the gargantuan money-making machine of today.
EPL has had its share of criticism. Mainly that it is a celebration of mediocrity which has done little to make England a competitive team. Tellingly, when FIFA selected its World XI last fortnight, not a single player was from the much vaunted EPL. And if the best Australians stay away to prepare for more important pursuits like the Ashes and the Pakistanis are kept out by politics, IPL too could soon meet the same fate.
English soccer by the late 1980s was in a state of decline with crumbling stadia and hooliganism keeping the fans away while the English First Division league trailed Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s La Liga in attendances and revenues. Which is when all the first division clubs resigned and formed the Premier League in May 1992, inspired largely by the lucrative television deals promised by Sky TV which in 1992, paid £191 million for five years of Premier League television rights a number that by 2007 had surged to £1.7 billion for five years. And the television deals were just the beginning; in 2001, Barclaycard paid £48 million for naming rights of the league, renewing the deal in 2007 for £65.8 million.
Twenty years later, the Premier League is the biggest on-going sports event on television with EPL games watched in over 200 countries worldwide. In stadium attendances too have been amazing. Spectators flock to the EPL venues and not just from within Britain. Figures compiled by VisitBritain show that 900,000 football supporters visited Britain last year to watch EPL. These football tourists collectively spent almost a billion dollars.
Just how this change was wrought could be an important tutorial for the IPL bosses if they want the event to become self-sustaining and healthy. Football historian James Walvin writes in his book The only game: Football in our times: “The major English clubs transformed themselves in the 1990s, developing a host of facilities never before seen at football grounds; restaurants, museums, supermarkets—even hotels—all clung to the stadiums like lucrative barnacle.”
Such is the pull of EPL that the money continues to flow in. The new Premier League TV deals kick in this summer—a domestic television deal worth $1.6 billion per season from 2013, and lucrative deals abroad as well with NBC paying $250 million for three years in the US.
It is this spread of the game that is the key lesson for the IPL franchise—bring players from non-test playing nations into the fold. One of the great pleasures of club football is the chance it gives enthusiasts to watch some wonderful talent from countries that are not among the top tier of global soccer. Angolan Manucho Gonçalves who played for Manchester United a few seasons ago, Gaël Bigirimana from Burundi, Emmanuel Adebayor from Togo, have all used the canvas provided by the Premier League to paint their prodigious talent.
In turn, their success has galvanized the game in their home countries. When a Salomon Kalou or Yaya Toure, stars for Chelsea or Manchester City, the collateral benefit is to put Ivory Coast on the football map of the world. With premier league star Didier Drogba leading, the elephants have moved up from being ranked 75 in the world in 2004 to 14 last year.
Ultimately though, it is about building a fan base that is loyal. Manchester United is nothing without its millions of fans worldwide. And it isn’t just about winning teams. When Inter play at the San Siro in Milan, the support is as strong and raucous as when AC Milan with its galaxy of superstars does. For that, a club or a franchise has to seep deep into the local culture. Barcelona’s legion of fans takes delight in the fact that all the players in the current world beating side have come through its brilliant youth development programme. Watching a Ravindra Jadeja bat or a Pawan Negi bowl in IPL isn’t quite the same thing.
Five year after it was set up, IPL is at the cross roads. A look at EPL, the most successful sports league in the world, wouldn’t be a bad idea.