Cricketainment!

IPL provides the ultimate package for fans and players. DH Photo

On a muggy evening of April 18, 2008, Bengaluru (then Bangalore) stood witness to a seminal moment in world cricket. It was, in many ways, Version 2.0 of India’s 1983 World Cup triumph at Lord’s. Just as that victory ended the hegemony of the England-Australia block in cricket, the beginning of the Indian Premier League 12 years ago heralded a new era in the sport.

The IPL has created a new world order in the game, dividing it vertically into for and against groups. There are those who despise it for what they perceive it stands for and there are others who see it as the future of the game. Test cricket may continue to be the foremost format of the game, but there is no running away from the fact that T20 is here to stay and IPL’s success over the last decade shows its increasing popularity notwithstanding the myriad controversies, some of which threatened to consume it.   

The Sreesanth-Harbhajan slap-gate, Lalit Modi’s acrimonious exit, alleged drug abuse by players, spot-fixing and betting scandal, conflicts of interest and the general indignation from purists – the IPL has not only survived all this storm from time to time but has thrived as well.

In its 12th year, the IPL is the biggest franchise tournament in the world by some distance and one of the world’s richest sporting products, competing with some of the popular leagues in Europe and the US. Just crunch these numbers – the brand value of IPL had soared to Rs 40,388 crore at the end of the last edition. The TV broadcast rights for the first 10 years fetched BCCI what then seemed an astronomical figure of approximately Rs 6,500 crore by Sony Pictures and World Sport Group. However, Star India shelled out Rs 16,347 crore to win the telecast rights for the next five-year cycle (2018-2022). Similarly, DLF had paid Rs 200 crore for the title sponsorship for the first five years. The 2018-22 period will earn the Indian Board a whopping Rs 2199 crore just from Chinese mobile company Vivo’s title sponsorship deal.

When about a combined USD 42 million were spent to buy players in the first-ever auction by eight city-based franchises whose owners had little idea about cricket, much less the T20 format, its sustainability as a profitable product was questioned. The losses suffered by most of the teams in the initial few years added fuel to this theory. But after 11 years, IPL remains the most popular T20 league. The new nature of the deal between the franchises and the BCCI ensures that each of them gets around Rs 300 crore every season besides gate collection and in-stadia advertisement money. The fans look forward to it and the players – both in India and abroad – are desperate to get an IPL contract. Of course, the money is big but the global or at least the pan-India recognition that one gets is irresistible.

A remark by a Vidarbha player soon after they became Ranji champions last month for the second time in a row was educative in this context. Even as he was celebrating the win, he turned sombre as he saw a few journalists approaching him for a chat and then complained, “See, we have won this trophy for the second time now but none of us has an IPL contract.”  Besides the over Rs 15 lakh per season that a regular domestic player earns, Vidarbha were awarded Rs 2 crore by the BCCI and as much by their own State association. That is huge money. But his statement summed up what IPL means to a player, international or domestic. Everyone wants a share of the IPL pie.

Many leagues have mushroomed across the world hoping to replicate the success of IPL but have failed miserably. This is mainly because of the huge fan base India has for its league and the advertisers who want to cash in on the popularity of the game. The money spinner that it is, IPL attracts the best cricketers from across the world – Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, AB de Villiers, David Miller, Steven Smith, David Warner, Kane Williamson, Ben Stokes are prominent among a host of current foreign players plying their trade in IPL. England, for long, resisted the temptation to keep its window free during IPL more out of ego than any genuine reason. But even they couldn’t withstand the pressure and the result is, Englishmen are some of the most sought after players in IPL. And with the entire cream of the Indian talent available to take part in the league, the quality of cricket is quite close to international standard.

The downside of it has been the birth of freelance cricketers. With huge money guaranteed in less time and relatively less work, an increasing number of cricketers are either retiring completely from the international stage or giving up on Tests. Chris Gayle is the best-known mercenary who is hugely popular for the kind of entertainment he provides. An average IPL fan -- and he belongs to the majority here -- isn’t worried about aesthetics of the game or the ebb and flow of a Test match. He wants a few hours of total entertainment whether he is watching it at the ground, or in a pub while enjoying his drink or at home with his family. That’s why the marketing men promoted IPL as “cricketainment” wherein cricket was packaged with cheer girls and popular music between deliveries and sold successfully to the public. To be fair to most of the viewers though, cricket has remained the primary attraction while other accompaniments have been mere sides to the main course.

Despite cricket being the biggest commodity, questions of morality have cropped up time to time and the infamous late-night post-match parties have raised a bigger stink. Every time there has been a crisis, however, IPL has managed to tide over it -- whether moral or financial. And it will in future too as the product is too big to be lost.

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