Never before has a sporting event spilled over into the national discourse with such passion as it has with the decision to move the second edition of Indian Premier League (IPL) out of India to South Africa. But then that is what cricket does to Indians, the most ardent followers of a game played by just 10 nations.
For those who are not familiar, IPL is the latest version of instant cricket where two sides play 20 overs a side, referred to as the Twenty20 format.
Also Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
However, in all the name calling and finger pointing that ensued after security concerns forced the league out of India, a bunch of facts have been overlooked or rather escaped the public eye. Not surprising because passion has clearly clouded reason. But, as the facts suggest, it may well be time to look at the issue pragmatically.
Firstly, IPL will take place in South Africa right in the middle of its national and provincial elections, scheduled to take place on 22 April.
Four days prior to that, the tournament will start and since election day is a holiday, two IPL matches will be played that day. So much for the rhetoric of how IPL would be a distraction for the general election due to begin on 16 April.
To be sure the general election in South Africa cannot be compared with India’s, especially in the light of this country’s vulnerability with respect to terror strikes —similar to the one sponsored from across the border that ravaged Mumbai for three days last year. Yet, the fact is that for the ruling African National Congress, IPL would come as a perfect populist offering ahead of the elections that will not only provide entertainment but also generate an estimated $100 million (Rs505 crore) of investment—a perfect stimulus without any costs to the state exchequer and with dramatic multiplier effects; and, unlikely to invite any censure from a model electoral code of conduct.
Which brings us to the second point. While a lot of the attention is focused on the big ticket franchise and player recruitment deals, what one overlooks is the ecosystem of economic opportunity that the league created, both in the formal and informal sector. Ranging from the ingenious and enterprising efforts of a league of people, operating informally, to paint a team’s colours on the faces/bodies of fans for a nominal fee to providing for the massive infrastructure—such as catering, housekeeping, security, chairs, parking and enclosures within and outside the stadium.
According to an official associated with the league, just this business of providing infrastructure would generate an income of anywhere between Rs50 lakh to Rs1 crore to suppliers in a span of six to eight weeks. This year, more so than last year, with the economy rapidly heading south, vendors had looked forward to the bonanza. Now, their counterparts in South Africa will enjoy this stimulus.
Thirdly, as Mint pointed out in its lead edit on 26 March, the latest episode in the two-year history of IPL is testing new notions of nationality and forcing a paradigm shift in the business model. Alongside, IPL has also brought in the notion of portability of what was otherwise a primarily Indian tournament.
This is something similar to say what happened to golf with respect to the European tour. Initially, it was restricted to Europe; 20 years ago it moved to Asia, later to Australia and then to South America as the popularity of the game spread, while it continues to be called the European tour.
This portability was actually, in principle, always available to IPL as it is a private tournament with the blessings of the official body of international and Indian cricket. So, what a private club does is its own business. But not if it is the “rebel” Indian Cricket League, which beat IPL to being the first Twenty20 club tournament in India, as it is not officially recognized.
Further, ahead of the second edition of IPL, the authorities extended the catchment area for the clubs to include, if it so happened, neighbouring countries—in this case Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and possibly Pakistan—coincidentally all the countries where cricket is equally popular.
In other words, the game would have moved out of India at some stage, once the format got popular. What the face-off between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the government did was to force this move in the second year itself.
Which then leads us to our final point and probably most important from an avid cricket fan’s point of view. The decision to move the tournament has made clear that it is not sport that will dictate events; instead, it will be the business of cricket.
Given the stakes—BCCI just renegotiated the broadcast rights for an astounding Rs8,200 crore—and the financial independence of the Board, IPL could not only afford to walk out on the government but also ignore thousands of cricket fans and local business in the country.
So, it is now official: cricket is business and not sport.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org