In a different league: How the IPL dwarfs other sports

Virat Kohli in action at this season’s IPL.  (AFP)
Virat Kohli in action at this season’s IPL. (AFP)

Summary

  • There are at least 15 sports leagues in India today, from established ones such as kabaddi to lesser-known ones such as arm wrestling. Many have tried to ape the IPL model. But, replicating that model is like building a sandcastle on a stormy beach.

New Delhi: In June 2023, the Indian Supercross Racing League (ISRL), an off road motorcycle racing league, was announced with some fanfare. While their hopes ran high, the organizers soon found it was an uphill struggle to attract sponsors. Eventually, they advertised in newspapers seeking expressions of interest from private equity companies, consortiums, and corporate houses for the franchises in the league. The league finally took off in January with six teams. It was a quiet affair, not quite matching the hoopla of the ISRL’s inspiration, the Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 cricket tournament.

The ISRL isn’t the only sports league that has tried to follow in the IPL’s footsteps only to fall short. A hockey league and a badminton league have already shut down, while others are barely hanging on. There are now at least 15 franchise leagues across various sports—from established ones such as kabaddi to lesser-known ones such as arm wrestling. Even chess, volleyball and handball have a professional league. But not one of them comes anywhere close to the IPL in terms of revenue and reach.

Anyone in the sports business will admit sports leagues—unless they are to do with cricket—have a really long gestation period. “Non-cricket leagues are like startups; they require money and they need you to be in it for the long haul. Most leagues have a gestation period of anywhere between four to eight years and even then they may not pass the floor test," said the head of a large sports broadcast channel. The executive didn’t want to be identified.

Bike racers at the CEAT Indian Supercross Racing League at Chikkajala, Bengaluru, on 25 February.
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Bike racers at the CEAT Indian Supercross Racing League at Chikkajala, Bengaluru, on 25 February. (PTI)

The IPL, on the other hand, is a financial juggernaut that has been rolling over everything in its path since it began. According to ‘Sporting Nation: Building a Legacy’, a recent report by GroupM, a media investment company, overall sponsorship, endorsement, and advertising spends on sports in India have grown from 2,423 crore ($564 million) since the IPL’s inception in 2008 to 15,766 crore ($1.9 billion) in 2023, at a compound annual growth rate of 13%. The IPL devours nearly all of that money, grabbing 13,701 crore or 87% of the 15,766 crore invested last year.

It comes as no surprise then, that independent brand and strategic advisory firm Brand Finance found that the IPL’s brand valuation grew 433% in 2023, going past the $10 billion mark. Millions tune in to watch the IPL, sponsors pour money in, and the league grabs it all, leaving other hopefuls with just a few morsels. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which owns the IPL, pockets half the revenue from media rights, a luxury other leagues can’t afford. Replicating the IPL model is like building a sandcastle on a stormy beach—but many are attempting to do it, and failing. Most other leagues have been chasing the mirage of astronomical television deals without having the viewership to do so. The IPL boasts a staggering 430 million TV reach, dwarfing other leagues. The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), a distant second, manages 226 million, the GroupM report stated.

Ad rates show just why television rights are a big deal. In the ongoing 17th season of the T20 cricket league, sponsors are expected to shell out 12.5 lakh per 10 seconds on the Standard-definition (SD) format and 5.3 lakh for high-definition (HD) on Star Sports. On Jio Cinema, pre- and post-match ceremonies will be 200 cost per mille or 1,000 impressions. On connected TV, a spot will cost 6.5 lakh, far exceeding other private sports sponsorships on television.

Simply put, the IPL reigns supreme, and is crushing the hopes of other sports leagues in India.

Staying the course

Despite facing setbacks, some of the other leagues, such as Kabaddi and Kho Kho, are gamely staying the course and even see bright prospects ahead. Tenzing Niyogi, chief executive officer (CEO) of the two-seasons-old Ultimate Kho Kho League, recalls a time about a decade ago when almost everything that India consumed on a large scale in terms of sports was cricket. “Back then, there were no buyers for the thing we were selling. The reality was that nobody wanted to invest in non-cricket sports. Today at least that perception has changed. From a room full of only sellers a decade ago, we see many more buyers stepping up to the table," said Niyogi.

File photo from the Pro Kabaddi League.
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File photo from the Pro Kabaddi League. (AP)

The franchise format Ultimate Kho Kho League, which clashed with two India-Pakistan T20 World Cup matches in its first season, still managed to clock a cumulative viewership of 35 million on television and about six million on video streaming platforms in India that season. The league, backed by Dabur’s Amit Burman, has an investment of about 200 crore planned over the years. Its media rights were bought by Sony Pictures Networks India.

But despite all that’s going for it, there are still doubts in the minds of team owners over its success. That discontent and doubt has meant the league faces resistance from franchises on whether there is going to be future financial comfort and whether the same financial model it started out with will continue.

In the case of the much-loved rural contact sport kabaddi, the owners of the PKL, Mashal Sports, have a big benefactor: a broadcaster. Disney Star owns about 74% of the league, which was launched in 2014 as a four-team format. It now has eight teams. In 2021, there was a huge dip in ratings but despite its low ratings, Disney Star picked up the media rights of PKL for five years at the base price of 900 crore in the absence of any other bidder.

 

The popularity of badminton is based on India’s performance in the Olympics, and that’s about it. —A broadcasting executive

 

Several franchise owners have raised concerns in the past over the broadcaster’s indirect ownership of the league, but the recently concluded ninth season of PKL clocked a cumulative reach of 222 million, several million more than its newest rival, the Ultimate Kho Kho League. The tenth season of the PKL, the broadcaster claimed, had more viewers in its first 90 matches, with about 226 million viewers tuning in. The league’s ratings showed kabaddi’s growing popularity among Indian sports fans. But ask anyone in urban India, and they’ll tell you nobody watches this sport. So, where are the audiences?

Some say most of the other private leagues, while showing good viewership numbers, have a skewed business. For instance, none of the football teams in the Indian Super League (ISL) makes any money despite the positive viewership data, perhaps because it is concentrated in a few regional pockets. The investments versus returns are disproportionate in some ways.

Last year, Hyderabad FC, a club in the ISL, faced a cash crunch and slashed the number of international players on its roster. Divyanshu Singh, chief operating officer of JSW Sports, which owns Bengaluru FC, said there is still not enough of a market for football in India. This is despite the fact that the league has been active in the country for over a decade.

 The market for football in India is limited, experts said.
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The market for football in India is limited, experts said. (AFP)

There is another major problem. Broadcasters find it very difficult to market individual sports in the country. “Yes, India has great badminton players and equally good tennis players, but they’re just a handful. Can two or three successful players retain the attention of audiences? The popularity of badminton is based on India’s performance in the Olympics, and that’s about it. Leagues in India will not work on the back of foreign stars. We are sceptical about putting money behind star players who may not have any resonance in India," added the broadcasting head cited earlier.

A different path

Parvin Dabas, co-owner of the Pro Panja arm-wrestling league, has a different view about the IPL’s impact. “We can’t blame cricket. I would fundamentally disagree with the idea that the IPL is taking away from other leagues," he told Mint. “It’s the advent of the IPL and its success that propped up other leagues like Pro Kabaddi. Of course, the economics of cricket are very different from the rest. In our first season, we achieved higher viewership than many competitors. We had 32 million unique viewers and not ‘reach’ since that is subjective," he added.

The arm-wrestling league has learned from the approaches taken by others. Unlike the IPL’s expensive auctions, it has kept costs in check. “The first year was never a revenue game for us but an eyeball game and we achieved that. There was no precedent for arm wrestling and we have become the biggest and best known private arm wrestling league in the world," claims Dabas. “People liked the way it was put out—it was faster and we had prepared our players to become more television ready."

Dabas said he expects to have 50-60 million viewers next season and expects to achieve profitability in about three-four years.

The Pro Panja League—it is shown on the Sony Sports Network—has avoided burning money. Dabas said the league has been prudent and kept the player cost for the first two years within budget before going into a proper auction in the third year, allowing the promoters and franchisees to get a foothold. “Maybe I don’t have a better way but we are happy with this. There is a whole ecosystem of companies that want to advertise in the IPL but don’t always find space; we are available to them," he added.

Not in the same league

Interestingly, even with cricket, viewers are choosy. Legends League Cricket (LLC) is possibly the only private cricket league outside the IPL that has seen significant traction. The T20 tournament, featuring recently retired international cricket stars, held its second season in November-December 2023 and remained the second most-watched international T20 league in India with the Women’s Premier League (WPL) a close third.

File photo from the Women’s Premier League (WPL) Twenty20 cricket tournament, 2023.
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File photo from the Women’s Premier League (WPL) Twenty20 cricket tournament, 2023. (PTI)

Co-founder Raman Raheja claims that the league delivered a value of $176.2 million or 1,450 crore this year. “We have almost achieved an operational break even point in our last season and shall be in profit next season onwards. Compared to all other T20 leagues in the world being consumed in India, we stand out in television viewership ratings (TVRs), reach and time spent primarily because of Indian players playing competitive cricket," he said.

“Cricket has become a very expensive investment for brands sponsoring or advertising. These investments are measured in terms of return on investment (RoI) by virtue of viewership or time spent by the viewer," Raheja added.

So, naturally, there is pressure on most leagues to perform or deliver RoI in the early stages, despite being in a catch-22 situation of not having enough takers in those stages.

Can anyone escape the IPL’s grip? Capri Sports, which owns a spectrum of teams across leagues, thinks so. It owns a team in the International League T20 (ILT20) cricket tournament, one in the Ultimate Kho Kho league, another in the PKL and one in the WPL.

 

We will also look at investing in talent for the next decade for kabaddi. —Jinisha Sharma

 

“Talent needs to be developed properly. We can’t have players that are playing just one season with us and going back to what they do for the rest of the year," said Jinisha Sharma, director at Capri Sports. “Training camps and other facilities are being created by us to make an entire ecosystem for the players so that they are engaged all year round. We will also look at investing in talent for the next decade for kabaddi. If India is looking at positioning kabaddi for the Olympics, then we need to look for more avenues for talent," she told Mint.

To be sure, kabaddi has been trying to build a path forward. Smart innovations like moving to mats made it faster, more visually appealing, and more watchable. This is also because Star Sports is a majority owner of the league. The broadcaster itself has made sure the league is a success. Leagues need to focus on building a loyal fan base, developing strong talent pipelines, and securing sustainable long-term investments. Only then can they emerge from the shadow of the IPL and carve their own path to success.

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