Losing Lalit – a review of the 2011 IPL

When India won the World Cup, an obsession swept that country that made every cog in the nation’s capitalist wheel jump to lubricate itself with all things cricket. Not that they hadn’t done so before, it is just that this single-minded strategy was taken to another stratosphere. People who hadn’t previously cared for the game were now mad about it and a bumper Indian Premier League season was anticipated. Twenty20 rupees looked certain to rain down harder than the monsoon that the IPL precedes . 

But without the controversial Lalit Modi at the helm of his colossal, albeit shadowy, brainchild, the fourth edition of the IPL has failed to live up to expectations. A combination of too short a break after the World Cup, cricket fatigue (for both players and spectators), a drop in team loyalty after the re-auctioning of the entire player pool, alleged corruption and high-handedness in the overgrown bureaucracy that is the BCCI, a shortage of new initiatives in the tournament, too many one-sided games and the continued lack of an international-fixtures window resulted in lower television ratings at IPL 2011 than at any of the previous editions.

And while the ambitions of such a tournament should focus on the standard of the competition and less about how many people watch it at home on the box, this sadly isn’t the case with the IPL. It is all about the money. Windfalls of profits from the IPL have raised players’ salaries to levels that many wouldn’t have believed were possible in our lifetimes but, whilst this may have enhanced the level professionalism in the game, it has happened at considerable cost to the health of international cricket in general, and Test cricket in particular. 

The West Indies have just wrapped up a home series against Pakistan and been fielding under-strength teams after having lost Kieron Pollard, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo to the IPL. Also, the lure of the tournament’s riches forced Lasith Malinga to retire prematurely from playing Test cricket for Sri Lanka. Once again Pakistani players, who are persona non grata in India despite their President being invited to watch the Mohali World Cup semi-final with the Indian Prime Minister, were not invited to participate. This has left their players embittered about earnings and possibly more likely to fall prey to the temptations of lucrative match-fixing. The IPL continues to weaken the competitiveness of the fringe Test-playing nations and the ICC appears to be insufficiently concerned about remedying the situation.

An IPL window could solve some of these problems but it would be unjust for world cricket to stand still for what is an Indian domestic tournament, and a very long one at that. There is no window for T20 leagues in other countries and, as Tony Grieg points out, “We have a situation where the ICC is dominated by India. They tell Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and one or two other countries what to do and they always get the vote. It’s very hard, but somehow we have got to change things at that level.

“We have got to look very, very closely and make sure we do not destroy the cornerstone of the game which is Test cricket,” he added in response to suggestions that that the BCCI is looking to secure a two-month window for its multi-billion-dollar cash-cow of a tournament.

“Overdose of cricket is bad for health,” read a privately-owned bill-board outside a well-known pizzeria near the Wankhede stadium on Marine Drive in Mumbai, one week into the IPL. Almost every day for three and a half months, there has been a live game in India on television. A local friend of mine told her newlywed husband that he was allowed to choose three IPL teams and watch their games only, or else she will not give him any children for two years. Indians are crazy about cricket but even they seem to have a saturation point.

Reduced television audiences at IPL 2011 will translate to lower future profits for the BCCI and the franchise owners. The two new sides, Kochi Tuskers Kerala and the Pune Warriors, were bought for 330 and 370 million dollars respectively and are very unlikely to show a profit on their investment for many years to come. These figures are starkly contrasted to the original eight franchises, which were bought for an average of 80 million dollars. The Rajasthan Royals was acquired for 67 million dollars before the inaugural IPL in 2008 and was then valued at 130 million dollars a year later (when 11.7% of the team was sold for 15.4 million dollars). 

But it is not only this original investment that is hard for the more expensively acquired teams to overcome. Franchises pay 10% of the amount for which they were purchased as an annual franchise fee to the BCCI. For Rajasthan this translates to 6.7 milllions dollars per year, while for Kochi and Pune, the figures are five-fold at 33 and 37 million dollars respectively – a barrier to profit that won’t be overcome easily, especially if the sides don’t finish at the top of the league or land bumper sponsorship deals.

In the third IPL season, most of the eight teams declared an operating profit but that is not to say that all of the team owners have seen positive returns on their initial capital investments. “We haven’t broken even yet. We’re hoping we’ll get there this year, but the last three years have been difficult for us,” said Arvinder Singh, chief operating officer of the Kings XI Punjab before IPL 2011. 

Player salaries are up 40-50% on last year and a recent survey found that pro rata, IPL player salaries are second only to the US National Basketball Association (NBA) in the world of sports leagues. According to the Annual Review of Global Sports Salaries the estimated average salary of an IPL player over a year would be $3.84 million.

Furthermore, while World Cup ticket prices were granted Entertainment Tax exemption, IPL franchises are not afforded the same luxury. The tax effectively inflates the price of match tickets. In the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, tickets attract a 10% tax and authorities expect to collect five million dollars from it. In Kerala, home to the new Tuskers team, the rate is 36% and although a 50% rebate has now been agreed, the damage was done by way of poor crowd attendances at that team’s games.

Another problem franchise owners have is that they are yet to realise strong incomes from merchandising. Whilst some teams have done well with sponsorship deals – the Royals increased their number of sponsors from 12 to 18 this season – the short season and fact that merchandise is so commonly reproduced and sold on the black market has meant that’s sides are unable to capitalise on the sale of team jerseys in the way that a football side like Manchester United has been able to do. It is difficult to build a strong team brand when that brand is only on the shelf for six weeks a year.

Indeed the owning of IPL teams may go the way of the English Premier League, where owners like Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich are far more concerned with team results than financial returns. The Mumbai Indians team is owned by Mukesh Ambani, whose company Reliance Communications turned over 45 billion dollars last year, I doubt very much whether he will be concerned if his play-thing costs him a few million dollars here or there (last year the franchise recorded a loss of 3.4 million dollars).

None of this paints a rosy picture for franchise owners but television ratings would have to drop a lot further before they overly trouble the BCCI as India’s cricket board is set to profit something in the region of 250 million dollars from IPL 2011. The BCCI’s wealth is exponentially larger than the rest of the cricket world combined and very little can be done to stop the fact that India will continue to dominate proceedings at the ICC.

An April study by UK-based analysts Brand Finance valued the IPL brand at $3.67 billion, a drop of 11 percent on the previous year, and that was before television ratings showed a massive 25% decline in audiences at this year’s tournament. While the BCC’s IPL is in no danger of complete demise, it is struggling to rake in the bucks in the exciting way it did under the business genius of Mr Modi. 

An astonishingly ambitious hard worker, marketing guru and ideas-man par excellence, Modi was the brains and face of the IPL. Although his position as Chairman of the league was unpaid, he amassed extraordinary fortunes for the BCCI and many of his friends and family members, some of whom are shareholders in teams. 

When the Indian government ruled at the last minute that IPL 2009 could not be held in India because of a schedule clash with national elections, Modi almost single-handedly pulled off the remarkable feat of moving the entire tournament to South Africa, where stadiums were filled with crowds dancing to Bollywood stars and Indian television ratings remained strong enough to put cinema complexes out of business. His extraordinary vision combined with the highly efficient sport marketing and logistics team under Andrew Wildblood of the International Marketing Group (IMG) was a winning a combination.

But Modi was axed during IPL 2010 amidst numerous charges of corruption and the former IPL Commissioner (a wonderful self-appointed title) is exiled in London. His passport has been revoked by the Indian government and he has refused to return home to face the music of criminal charges against him on the grounds that, after receiving several death threats, he fears his life would be in danger if he did so. Not the kind of man to hide quietly, Mr Modi has used the internet to voice his streams of opinions on the tournament and those who run it. Conflicted between support for his creation and deep contempt for his foes at the BCCI, his messages on the Twitter website come thick and fast on a daily basis.

After personally brokering and then often positively re-negotiating most of the deals that hold together the IPL, Modi in all likelihood has vested financial interests in the financial success of the tournament. “Just learnt that the ratings for IPL have reached an average of 3.84 (TRP ratings scale). Which is the lowest it has ever achieved. Sorry to hear the same,” writes Modi on Twitter.

While Modi has mostly been positive in his support for the child that was taken away from him, he has not had the same approach when tweeting about the BCCI honchos that ousted him and hijacked the gravy train he drove.

“Not indirectly, but very directly. Fixing the auction, umpires and now pitch. Just give the damn trophy to CSK,” Modi wrote of the BCCI secretary who is also the owner of the Chennai Super Kings side.

Do not forget that match-fixing is one of the allegations that was made against Modi’s tenure. But while Modi was the boss of the IPL there was someone who could be held responsible for alleged mismanagement of the league. Now it is an almost faceless organisation hiding behind the auspices of the BCCI, a large and powerful organisation. It would be both churlish and naïve to believe that the funny business in those ranks ended with the departure of Lalit Modi.

Like a circus without a ring-master, the IPL 2011 has seemed a monotonously choreographed show that we have seen so many times before. Whilst crowd attendances have been good and the tournament has gone smoothly, it has lacked the intrigue and entertainment value it boasted under the magical Mr Modi. One would have expected that tickets for the final would be sold out in a matter of minutes but it has been five days since they went on sale and they are still not quite sold out. 

In previous tournaments there were often upwards of 80 journalists in the press box, whereas this year I have been to games where there have been fewer than ten. Senior Indian cricket writers have been virtually nowhere to be found and I have not bumped into even one foreign cricket writer.

Cheerleaders have been told to wear more clothes, there have been fewer fireworks (not just off the pitch) and a degree of sameness pervades the jamboree. Bollywood megastars Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty and Shah Rukh Khan hugging players in the dug-out was a massive novelty three years ago but this year’s crackdown on IPL parties has diminished press interest in the glitz and glamour that weds cricket to India’s high society. In any case it is no longer so exciting for the average Indian television viewer. Liz Hurley’s cheering on her lover, Shane Warne, at his last IPL may have been about the only exception.

On the field, under half of the 70 group matches matches were closely fought and very few high scores were successfully chased down, which is not what crowds in India relish. Midway through the league Virender Sehwag blitzed 119 off 56 balls to give Delhi, who had been teetering at 25/3 in the sixth over, an terrific four-wicket win over the Deccan Chargers who had put up a substantial 175-run target. It was the kind of game that made the inaugural IPL a blockbuster but games this scintillating were few and far between. The following twelve consecutive matches were so one-sided that there was little reason to keep watching after the first strategic (read: advertising) time-out break.

In fact the IPL lacked the kind of game one never forgets until the last group game of the season. Kolkata Knight Riders needed to beat the Mumbai Indians in front of a capacity Eden Gardens in order to secure a top-two finish, and thereby only need to win one play-off game for a place in the final. Mumbai had five wickets in hand and needed 21 runs off the final over to avoid a fifth straight loss when Lakshmi Balaji sent down a nightmare six balls to James Franklin and Ambati Rayadu that conceded 23 runs, including a six off the last ball to win a crackerjack of a match. The feat prompted the notorious blogger @Altcricket to tweet, “It’s taken 70 matches, but finally, a good game in the IPL.”

With the cap of only four international players allowed in any starting XI remaining unchanged, the talent pool of Indian players was spread even more thinly across ten teams – instead of the previous eight – with the result that many very fine international players have been unable to get a game while several below-par Indians get caps. The IPL should not be allowed to get away with asking for an international window and being a domestic tournament. 

As Warne said the day after his retirement from professional cricket, “India needs to use its power responsibly and not trample over the smaller nations in search of extra revenues.”

The rules relating to the re-auctioning of players before the fourth season saw very few players being retained by each franchise, thus undoing of much of the fan loyalty that had been built up over the previous three seasons. A strict limit of four players per side were allowed to be retained but doing so proved expensive at the auction as anyone worthy of keeping was bid for by their old club and other clubs. Consequently a mere 12 players were retained by the eight franchises, and the squads at every one of them bore almost no resemblance to their previous sides, an obvious problem given that the popularity of sports leagues is underpinned by the loyalty of teams’ fans. Yuvraj Singh is from Punjab but he is the “icon” player and captain of Pune – it is enough to turn the most mentally sane cricket fan schizophrenic.

But by no means is it all doom and gloom for the IPL. Even if team ownership starts to trade on a lower price earnings ratio there are still many pros to the tournament. 

Crowd attendances have been good, with many games sold out at high ticket prices. The IPL has brought about the extension and diversification of cricket fans in India. On my first visit to these shores I remember thinking that there was hardly a woman or child in any stadium and that ticket prices were low. But going to a game has become a far more mainstream activity and India’s bulging middle class has lapped up the entertainment. Stadiums are more comfortable – squatting stands behind razor-wire seem to have been abolished, refreshments are more freely available, lavatories cleaner and security tighter. Tickets are freely available online and are couriered to your door, thus eliminating the need to either queue all day in the sun or know a club member. Match tickets are not inexpensive and a cross-section of any IPL 2011 crowd reveals a well-to-do demographic of students, families with young children, and even groups of women on a girls’ night out. 

Highlights included some ridiculously fast-scoring innings from the likes of Chris Gayle (107 off 49 balls amongst others) and Adam Gilchrist (106* off 55 balls) and the discovery of a certain Paul Valthaty (120* off 63 early in the season). Malinga picked up where he left off after the World Cup and, at the end of the group stages, led the Purple Cap contest by clear water with 27 scalps (over 20 of those were clean bowled!). Youngster Rahul Sharma made a name for himself as a promising leg-break bowler and probable future star for India. 

It is probably no coincidence that India won the first World Cup since the invention of the IPL for the country’s stars are now well accustomed to high pressure situations. 

But as a tournament the IPL is too long and too congested. It takes place at the hottest time of year in India, when cricket is not normally played. One doesn’t hear players complain about the schedule because of the exorbitant salaries they are paid to go through the motions: Who pays the piper calls the tune and even the unhappy player who never gets any game time puts on a big smile when he is interviewed pitch-side and fibs about how he is “having the time my life” spending six hours a day on buses and planes and standing around for soft-drink commercials five thousand miles away from his family.

But the IPL has been and will continue to be a fantastic tournament. It may not prove as entertaining or profitable a league without Lalit Modi but it serves a purpose in providing entertainment to the masses and enough money to retire to the players that make the cut. The major worry with the tournament is something none of us can do anything about and that is that it fattens up the already obese BCCI and ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ is the approach the rest of the world is likely to take.

This article appeared in the June edition of Spin magazine

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