Mumbai: Cricket is hotting up. For two of the most humid months in India, top players from around the world compete in the Indian Premier League (IPL), commanding salaries as high as $2.5 million for seven weeks. Alongside television presenters and fans, they literally drip with sweat through four-hour long matches in a tournament which completed its eleventh year at the end of May with the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) delivering a stunning win.
It is a far cry from the staid one-day or week-long formats of traditional international fixtures, in which players decked out in plain off-white kit perform for politely applauding fans. The IPL is fast and flashy. Players wear gold-embossed uniforms and give live interviews while they are on the field. The stumps—those three wooden sticks the bowlers try to knock over—light up when the ball crashes into them, and scantily-clad Caucasian cheerleaders elevate the spirits of Indian fans in mostly alcohol-free stadiums while loud music blares.
Audience figures match the hype. Almost 450 million people tuned in to watch the competition, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council India’s count, up around 9% from last year. Star India, part of Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-first Century Fox, broadened the reach by showing most games in six different local languages across 10 television channels. It also aired the tournament on its Hotstar streaming platform, setting a new world record for the most concurrent viewers online for a sports event, the broadcaster says.
The IPL final alone attracted 173 million viewers, 43% more year-on-year - or about 56 million so-called impressions on a time-weighted basis, growing at a similar pace. In contrast, the US National Football League’s flagship game, the Super Bowl, attracted 103 million average viewers in February this year, 7% fewer than in 2017 and the lowest viewership since 2009, as calculated by Nielsen. Television ownership in India is still growing even as its tech-savvy youth discover new online ways to watch content.
The cost of TV rights is also extraordinary for a relatively young sports franchise in a poor country. A perfect comparison is hard to find, but Star paid $2.4 billion for the broadcast and digital rights to the IPL through to 2022, equivalent to about $8 million per match. For the UK rights to show English soccer’s Premier League until 2022, British broadcaster Sky—also partially owned by Murdoch—paid a sum equivalent to a bit over $12 million per match. Factoring in digital and international rights would bump that figure higher.
Salaries are also creeping towards those of the world’s top sporting leagues. The season’s most expensive player, Indian national team captain Virat Kohli, was paid $2.5 million by the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) for his IPL stint. English all-rounder Ben Stokes picked up almost $2 million from the Rajasthan Royals. Over a similar seven-week period, German footballer Mesut Ozil would have earned something over $3 million playing for Arsenal in the Premier League based on a salary figure reported by the Guardian. IPL founder Lalit Modi thinks players could earn up to $2 million for each match if team salary caps are removed.
Backed by big businesses, the league has survived corruption controversies, too. Modi has lived in London for most of the past decade. In 2013, the Indian cricket board found him guilty of offences relating to financial irregularities during his chairmanship of the tournament. The Chennai and Rajasthan teams were each banned for two years. But in a sign the sport is thriving, Thomson Reuters’ IFR reported last week that KPH Dream Cricket, owner of the Kings XI Punjab team, is hiring banks for a domestic initial public offering.
As with American football, advertisers save their big bucks and best commercials for the IPL, which is seen as “recession proof". Indian and British telecom operators Reliance Jio and Vodafone, Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, automakers, and e-commerce company Amazon.com led the charge this year.
Each match allows for as much as 47 minutes of advertising, with slots at the end of every over—cricket-speak for each group of six balls bowled—and during strategic timeouts. The ad time, though lengthy, is considerably less than what Indians endure watching a film on cable. It compares with 49 minutes of paid ads in the most recent Super Bowl, according to Kantar Media estimates.
Star expected to make around $300 million in the season just ended, an increase of about 50% on what previous rights owner Sony made last year. If spending continues to increase at the same rapid clip through the five years of the current deal, the cumulative revenue could amount to $4 billion.
Some enthusiasts see a future for the IPL where the global cricket calendar is adjusted to accommodate a longer competition that keeps fans engaged for more of the year. Others think additional revenue can be generated from pushing the game into new markets where there is a large Indian diaspora and broadening the tournament’s international appeal.
Either way, the reach of the IPL’s sizzling version of cricket in the world’s second most populous country means it is already batting for the global sports crown.