The opening ceremony of the fifth Indian Premier League delivered heartily on all parameters of the garishness and vulgarity that we have to come to expect. At least it did in the 10 minutes I could bear to watch. (J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted: “Can the IPL opening be any more tacky?") A couple of hours later, confident that the worst was over, I surfed back to SET Max, only to find IPL chairman Rajeev Shukla gloating that all curators had been instructed to prepare pitches such that no team can score less than 160 in their allotted 20 overs. So much for Shukla’s understanding or appreciation of the game.

The very next day, Chennai Super Kings played a cruel joke on Shukla by getting all out for 114. This sort of impertinence is not going to work, Mr Dhoni.

Graphics b Jayachandran/Mint

A friend who owns an advertising agency informs that commercial spots were available during the India-Pakistan match in the recently concluded Asia Cup for 3.6 lakh per 10 seconds. Of course, these were last-minute sales, as the channel tried to flog unsold inventory. To put it in perspective, a 10-second spot on a popular soap commands around 5 lakh. And this was an India-Pakistan match.

IPL1 saw rates rise to nearly 10 lakh during the final stages. In IPL4, broadcaster Multi Screen Media (MSM) quoted around 13 lakh per 10 seconds for the last four matches, but found few buyers at that price. Apparently, the spots ultimately went for around 5 lakh. The reason: the average TRP (television rating points) for IPL4 had fallen to 3.9 from the 5.5 of the year before. The advertisers were right in holding out. The IPL4 final got a TRP of around 7, nearly half the 12.9 rating that the IPL3 final drew.

This year, two sponsors—LG Electronics and Godrej —associated with IPL from the very first season, have dropped out. LG’s chief marketing officer L.K. Gupta told the media that “the return we get in terms of TRPs does not justify the high level of spending". IPL5 has a new official mobile partner, Karbonn Mobiles, at $4.6 million, nearly 40% less than the $7.2 million IPL4 had charged. Anyway, Maxx Mobilink, last year’s mobile partner, has not paid up, and the matter is in court.

Other companies are unhappy too. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) launched the Champions League T20 with much fanfare, but Bharti Airtel, the original title sponsor, walked out last year citing low viewership, and moved the money to the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Sahara India wants BCCI to refund 27% of the money it paid to buy the Pune franchise, since IPL4 had 74 matches, not 94 as originally planned. But “27%" may be a massive understatement. Sahara shelled out $370 million for Pune Warriors, about 70% more than the highest price paid for any of the original eight teams in 2008—Mukesh Ambani’s $112 million purchase of the Mumbai Indians. It is extremely doubtful whether Sahara will ever recoup its investment.

In 2009, consultancy firm Brand Finance valued the IPL brand at $2.01 billion. The next year, the figure more than doubled to $4.13 billion. (The figures were released before the years’ tournaments began.) And then came the fall. In 2011, Brand Finance slashed IPL’s value to $3.67 billion. Now, brand valuation is a somewhat subjective enterprise, but while one can endlessly dispute the actual figures, the trend seems credible. It was in 2010 that IPL was hit by a barrage of controversies: the sacking of Lalit Modi, the opaque ownership patterns of many of the franchises, allegations about sources of funds and money laundering. In pure number terms, viewership was falling, while average team costs had risen from about 30% of revenues in 2009 to nearly 45% in 2010.

And as for IPL5, the fact that the Indian cricket team has hardly covered itself in glory in the last one year may impact interest and viewership.

The organizers, franchise owners and broadcasters have of course been exuding confidence in public. As they should be, even though they have a tiger by the tail. MSM has hiked advertising rates by 10%, and hopes to earn 1,100-1,200 crore (up from an estimated 900 crore last year). But it has also admitted that ad sales are slower this year, and it has not been able to tie in the number of sponsors it was targeting.

Whatever the final figures, however, this season could be the one that stabilizes expectations, and makes IPL a more natural part of the cricket calendar, not the breathless tamasha of all-around greed that has begun to drag. And the tiger and its riders may finally be able to negotiate a wary, least-pain, settlement.

Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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