The Bets on Its Survival

With the Deccan Chargers up for sale, another scare notice has gone up on the future of the big league
IPL
Deccan Chargers co-owners T Venkatram Reddy and Gayatri Reddy seen with Lalit Modi in better days for both

Ninety-one-year-old Madhav Mantri, India’s oldest living Test cricketer, sat in a first row seat of the quaint dining room at Mumbai’s Bombay Gymkhana. He wore a dark blazer, a rust-coloured neck brace and thick black frame spectacles. Above him, suspended from the wooden ceiling, was a shiny disco ball.

Mantri and the glitter ball represented the two faces of cricket. One belonged to the gentlemen’s era of Test cricket, the game’s revered form that some think is now outdated. The disco orb symbolised Twenty20 and the razzmatazz of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Mantri was at the Bombay Gymkhana to hear Sourav Ganguly deliver the annual Dilip Sardesai Memorial lecture. Other bright bulbs of Indian cricket were also present at the venue, which is cranky and snobbish at times but always grand. Dilip Vengsarkar was around, dapper and jovial as usual. There was Ajit Wadekar, Kenia Jayantilal and Sanjay Manjrekar, among others. The Sardesai family was there. Rajdeep Sardesai and wife Sagarika Ghose, both prominent television journalists, were less bellicose than they are on camera. Rajdeep choked up as he looked at Wadekar and said, “My father always said he wouldn’t have gone to the West Indies if not for Wadekar.”  (The 1970-71 tour to the West Indies made Dilip Sardesai’s reputation.)

Ganguly made us wait just about as much as Steve Waugh. He was in form. He called Shah Rukh Khan’s bluff that he did not interfere in the Kolkata Knight Rider’s cricketing matters. Asked what was easier, captaining India or an IPL team, Ganguly said, “India was easier. No one called me before and after every match asking why someone did not bowl the slower one in the 18th over.”

Ganguly was to talk about the effect of Twenty20 on Test cricket. He maintained that Test cricket was a player’s ultimate test, but he also said that T20 and the IPL had benefits. The big advantage of the IPL, according to him, was that it enabled upcoming players to perform with stars on a big stage.

The worrying thing is that while Test cricket is certainly at a crossroads, the IPL too is facing some challenges. As this is being written, the tournament is without a title sponsor. One franchise, Deccan Chargers, is formally being sold and a couple of others also want out. Back in booming 2008, with Indian cricket high on India’s victory in the 2007 World T20, eight golden eggs were pulled out of the hat by Lalit Modi. But of these, only four hatched into somewhat healthy birds—Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders, Chennai Superkings and (perhaps) Delhi Daredevils. The other four of the original eight—Deccan Chargers, Kings XI Punjab, Royal Challengers Bangalore and Rajasthan Royals—have been wobbly. The Pune Warriors are too young to comment on.

The other problem is perhaps not as serious, but needs attention nevertheless. There is viewer fatigue. This year’s television ratings indicated a tapering of interest in the IPL. As Modi wrote in his blog: ‘In 2010, the tournament had a TV rating of 5.51, in 2011 it reduced to 3.51 and this year’s event was 3.45 (figures from TAM Sports) Now, Deccan Chargers are in a mess and perhaps—just perhaps—all of these elements are inter-related?’

Modi, being a slighted party after his ouster from the BCCI, should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. (When Open asked a team employee if Modi’s exit had affected franchises’ functioning with the BCCI, he said, “No. But if you ask me whether anyone else could have started IPL, the answer to that would also be no.”)

It is also true that India’s population and the popularity of cricket are simply too high for a slight dip in ratings to matter much. As Joy Bhattacharya, director, Kolkata Knight Riders, says, “They are still very high numbers. In fact, the IPL has now settled into a very stable model.” He also says, “You cannot expect the first year’s novelty to go on forever. The first year, everyone watched the IPL like the Olympics. But the Olympics or the football World Cup are held once in four years. Eventually you don’t watch an annual event like you watch the Olympics. For example, if you are following the EPL [English Premier League], you will watch matches involving your favourite team and the occasional match involving other big teams. That’s how it is with the IPL too.”

However, it is a fact that sponsors and investors are finding prices steep. Before last year’s IPL, sponsors wanted SET Max Television, the official broadcaster of the IPL, to reduce ad rates (nearly Rs 5 lakh for ten seconds). So, while stadiums might continue to be sold out, the sponsors certainly want to spend less.

The BCCI has to find a new title sponsor; DLF, the earlier title sponsor, has not renewed the deal. DLF was happy with all the mileage it got from its five-year investment (Rs 250 crore; Rs 50 crore a year). Its exit may not in itself be a setback for the IPL, but it has been reported that the new sponsor will have to pay three or four times as much as DLF. The BCCI, that mighty King Kong of Churchgate, bristles at any mention of estimates, and any doubts expressed about the wellbeing of their moneyspinner. A board employee told Open: “No one knows the figures. It is all a pie in the sky. Is it a challenge to find a sponsor? Well, it always is a challenge. Every time there is a situation like this, questions are asked, but we have found solutions and the value of our assets has always appreciated.”  

Marketing professionals advise the Board to be realistic about prices in these times, and to be more of a friend to investors rather than a cold business partner. Branding and business strategist Harish Bijoor says, “If the BCCI has a friendly attitude, if they handhold them [franchises] through difficult times, they can still see to it that they don’t kill the goose that lays golden eggs. And the IPL is a goose that can lay golden eggs.”

Bijoor says franchise owners need patience and deep pockets. In a model like the IPL’s, he says, a business or franchise will need seven to nine years to mature. “Yes, there will be exceptions, but the first rule is patience.” About the second requirement, he says, “Mumbai Indians have the best corpus. A few other teams have managed to do well, so the cream has floated up.” Bhattacharjya makes a similar point. “The IPL is a gold mine over time. To unlock its real value, you need to give it 15-20 years.”

Apart from the money and the game, the IPL needs to pay some attention to rejuvenating its image, says brand consultant Kiran Khalap. He regards Pepsi as a good example of a brand that always reinvented itself. “Brand consultants will tell you that a brand should have one part that is always changing and one that is not,” he says. “Pepsi has always done it. First, it was the ‘Nothing Official about It’ campaign, then they positioned themselves as a drink for football fans. There was even a blue Pepsi, which was an awful drink, but at least they were doing something new. I don’t think the IPL has done that. If I were running a team, I would engage with fans throughout the year, not just the 45-50 days of the IPL.”

Khalap also says, on the basis of his interaction with companies, that clients are not certain whether breaking the bank just to be in the IPL is worth it. “The world over, ROI [return on investment] from mass media is going down, since the younger generation is doing all its watching online,” he says. There is also that sobering bit of research that has made sponsors rethink strategy. “There was a study that revealed that of the 20-odd brands associated with the IPL, viewers recalled only one campaign—the ZooZoos [of Vodafone],” says Khalap.

But optimism and pessimism come and go easily in Indian cricket. The credibility of the sport crashed in the late 90s, when the match-fixing scandal was exposed. But then the Ganguly-Wright era began and cricket soared again. The 2007 World Cup (50 overs) was another dark hour. But Sreesanth held on to Misbah-ul-Haq’s scoop and rescued the fortunes of the sport. It is true that this time round, the problems go beyond cricket. They have to do with the global economy. The ball is in the BCCI’s lair.