The IPL is now the largest league in terms of viewership across the world, outside of Football and American Sports.
The Indian Premier League (IPL) has sent out a tender to bid for two new teams for IPL, which has been met with significant interest by Sports enthusiasts and Investors alike, demonstrating that the ultra-successful league juggernaut continues to roll, and continues to expand its footprint and platform globally.
The IPL is now the largest league in terms of viewership across the world, outside of Football and American Sports. The revenues may fall a bit short, some of it because of TRAI broadcast policies, and some of it because of the low airtime it gets in spite of the mind space it commands. It is true that with about 200 hours airtime, IPL falls very short of most leagues in the world. Major League Baseball in the United States, for example, plays over 2400 games in a year, excluding the post season, over a six-month period, for a country population which is half of the IPL viewing population per season. The reason I mention this is because the success of IPL is garbled with the lack of other alternatives, and also the fact that the success is measured in numbers of viewership, and probably revenue, rather than what are the systemic changes it should bring to the table to influence the sport for betterment.
Also, as the beacon of the cricketing establishment, it is incumbent upon BCCI to be the torch bearer for the sport, the cutting edge in terms of the thinking it brings to the table, and to raise the game, though it may sound an oxymoron; as nobody else may have the resources to do so. Cricket is a sport where, national rivalries, though diminishing fast, still are important, and franchise cricket in its own ways has helped nuance it, by accelerating events which have led to interesting outcomes. The New Zealand team, which is now a world champion, and such a joy to behold, would not have been so if IPL would have supported their part time cricketers to become world beaters. Our friends from the Caribbean are heading in the same direction, and if they had a more cohesive structure would show similar results. The reason I mention this is because I think the sport continues to have a global outreach, and IPL in its own intransigent way is becoming the El Dorado of any athlete wanting to play the sport at the highest level.
The Indian team’s success, of late, camouflages the impact of IPL in India. One hears a lot that IPL has brought a lot of talent to the fore to Indian cricket than earlier. The success of Venkatesh Iyer, Ravi Bishnoi, Rahul Chahar in recent times, probably points to the fact IPL gives real talent a show case to perform their wares to a larger audience and decision makers, but is that enough. Even after the two teams which will be added this year, not all the first-class cricketers in India will be a part of the IPL, and only a smidgen of international talent will play here given the contours the structure which have been laid out. Is the talent development happening at the level it could, or is Indian Cricket harvesting the demographic dividend it has fortuitously stumbled upon?
In the fourteen years of franchise cricket we have had, we have gone through largely three phases. First, a rather tentative investment on a contested idea, which did not promise great returns, but was euphoric. Second, on the back of mega successful broadcast deals, the franchise operations became profitable and the assets (Teams) enhanced significantly in value. And now, in the third phase, franchises looking for growth through revenue enhancements and franchise build ups of a different nature. Still an overwhelming revenue of the franchise comes from Central Rights, which precludes their motivation to build other opportunities which are sizable.
I do believe that most franchises have singularly failed in their objective of building talent structures and product pipelines, which they could have and essentially own the cricket business in their areas. This is akin to the international model where the team, building process becomes bottoms up rather than top down, thus creating sub structures which expand the game. In our country the sheer pull of the sport, and the various academies which have mushroomed hides the fault lines, for the lack of a better word, in what we could create.
A hypothesis which is doing the rounds says that the nature of the private investment in IPL may be responsible for this. Almost all of the investment in IPL is large corporate investment, if the latest ITT (Invitation to Tender) is to be believed, the BCCI wants it to become larger. It is understandable, to make the model more financially robust, but does cricket need more financial robustness, or does it need more innovation or risk taking. The reason I mention this because I have not seen much innovation at the ground level by most IPL teams at building the game or the structure, and they are well placed to do it. It needs a robust club ecosystem, with real estate and intellectual properties built within, which should drive the development of the game going forward.
The debate between Test Cricket and T20 is real, credible, but not too important going forward. A decision needs to be taken on the 50 over format, which is key. The format is increasingly becoming effete, and probably would not be played except for the ICC World Cup, which drives major ICC revenue and supports the smaller countries. While some purists have fulminated over it in recent times, I think it is a useless debate because cricket has always evolved from the shorter format to the longer as one plays it in schools and growing up, as anyone involved with the game would tell you. Also, if one looked at best cricketers across formats in cricket, it’s the same mostly, confirming the adage that talent conquers all, and formats are incidental.
That’s why when we seek more participation and investment in IPL through new teams and probably a longer format of the tournament, is the time to take a breather and look at how we build the game over the next few decades. It is evident to people in the media industry that bilateral cricket will take a hit in terms of revenue, and Franchise cricket is required to keep the revenue pie going. Franchise Cricket will have to deepen itself to start building enduring models in their areas for talent development, and giving more opportunities for emerging players to showcase themselves, and for Franchise revenue lines to be more robust. BCCI then has to help manicure the process to ensure the pipeline grows.
There is also a need to build a better player support system including pensions and incentives which support continued player participation and development, as not all first-class players make the IPL cut. The BCCI is in a great place today, and it has to use its corporate partnerships well to expand the management bandwidth behind the game, and also drive team performance to franchise and national team fans.
Atul Pande is a Director at Sportzlive and Emerging Sports, two companies which run the badminton and boxing leagues in India. He is the erstwhile CEO of Ten Sports and Managing Director at Cholamandalm Finance in his previous avatars . He can be reached at email@example.com