Compared to other major global sports, cricket has always been unusual in club matches being so peripheral to internationals. Even for many ardent cricket fans in India a generation ago, to go to domestic matches was somehow seen as a little eccentric; those matches were seldom on TV. The IPL changed all that; for many, it turned domestic cricket from an irrelevant addendum to the international game to the main event.
From the opening day of its first auction, when $42 million was spent signing 78 players for a seven-week tournament, the IPL was derided as an unsustainable bubble. These players, after all, were being signed by franchises who did not exist a few months ago, and had not yet got a single fan into their grounds.
Even as the IPL soared, many believed it might be commercially unstable and, because no tradition had been built up, as susceptible to changing tastes as the Tamagotchi virtual pet toy. (In the late 1990s, the Tamagotchi went from selling 15 devices per second in the US and Canada alone to having millions of units worldwide unsold and unwanted within a few years.)
The IPL long ago proved that it is altogether more durable than the Tamagotchi. While there is evidence that T20 leagues worldwide are over-hyped – so far most leagues and franchises have routinely lost money – the IPL has stood out as an exception.
Last September, Star Sports spent $2.55 billion on five years of exclusive broadcasting and digital rights for the IPL – a five-times increase on the annual value of the previous deal, which prompted great buoyancy in the league. Commercially, according to a Star TV report, the 11th IPL season was the most successful yet: total TV viewership grew 15% compared with the 2017 season, and total viewership across TV and digital combined rose 29%. This year, for the first time, some IPL regular season matches rated higher than the average for an Indian bilateral T20.
The season also marked a maturation of the IPL and its wider acceptance as a sporting league. Star Sports marketed the competition as “cricket, not cricketainment”, according to a broadcasting insider. This shift is beneficial on a commercial level too: those who are drawn to just the tamasha may watch the start and end of the competition – and, indeed, the start and end of games – but those who will reliably watch over after over, night after night, need to relish the actual cricket too.
For many franchises, 2018 was the inflexion point: the year when, because of the new rights deal, they went from being volatile businesses to reliable money-making enterprises. It was also the year when franchises stopped paying the BCCI a fixed franchise fee (although they have to now pay 20% of their revenue to the board). “In ten years the IPL has done what we wouldn’t have imagined on day one, season one,” says Amrit Thomas, chairman of Royal Challengers Bangalore.
A cricket giant, a global mouse
Yet, seen through the prism of other major sports leagues, what stands out is not how big the IPL is – but how small. In a nation of 1.3 billion, the IPL only comprises eight teams, playing a total of 60 matches. In England, a country of 55 million, Premier League football – to which IPL owners often compare the league – has 20 teams playing a total of 380 games. And while the IPL’s new TV deal was remarkable on a cost-per-game basis – the deal is worth four times as much as each NBA game and two-thirds as much as each Premier League game – it remains puny in absolute terms. The NFL, the world’s most lucrative league, generates $7.3 billion in broadcasting revenue per year – 14 times as much as the IPL.
Compared to the other leading leagues it aspires to, the IPL is far smaller in duration, number of teams, number of matches and total commercial value. The league is much younger – and so, potentially, with much growth to come – than the others, but the vast difference in figures is illuminating. Indeed, it generates less in broadcasting rights than Brazil’s Serie A football league, which is never mentioned as a global heavyweight.
So what can it do?
The IPL’s current structure – eight sides playing each other twice before the play-offs – is established until the 2022 season, when the current broadcasting contract ends. But when the new deal commences, there are likely to be changes.
“I would be surprised if there were not more teams, but also hopefully a clearer slot in the international calendar,” says Manoj Badale, the lead owner of the Rajasthan Royals.
The most likely outcome is that the number of teams will increase from eight to ten, and the number of games will rise from 60 to 74 – mirroring the format used in 2011, the only year to feature ten sides. But this change is only deemed favourable if it is accompanied by a ten-day increase in the length of the competition, which would mean there would not need to be any double-headers played during the working week. In 2011, the tournament suffered because of a spate of midweek double-headers – the earlier match would begin in the afternoon, played out in front of underwhelming crowds and mediocre TV viewing numbers.
In the medium-term, ten teams are widely viewed as the optimum number: a way of growing the league while maintaining the quality of the competition, the competitive balance, and not diluting the sheer sense of event that an IPL match still represents. The IPL’s challenge, Thomas believes, is how to grow while remaining true to its identity as a short and snappy tournament.
“You will need to think about: do we really need IPL brand expansion and, if so, what should it be? Do you really want to elongate the tournament? There would be fatigue related to players and let’s not forget it’s really demanding.”
Should the IPL indeed expand, it invites the question of where those sides would be. The most likely cities to have a team are Pune and Ahmedabad. More ambitiously, to increase the IPL’s geographical spread and penetration, Lucknow, Kanpur, Kochi and perhaps even Guwahati could be considered as potential venues for new franchises.
A Women’s IPL
In the years ahead, the IPL is poised to move from being one league to several. “It is critical that the IPL develop the game at all levels within India – not just for the lucky few that get to play,” says Badale.
The women’s exhibition match in Mumbai this year, before an IPL play-off game, was essentially a down payment on creating a Women’s IPL. Here, the template is obvious: the Women’s Big Bash (WBBL), which has the same teams as the men’s tournament, has been a remarkable success since its launch in 2015. While the WBBL was initially played largely alongside the men’s BBL, it now has its own block, meaning it will finish just as the men’s tournament begins, and so extend the Big Bash’s hold over the Australian sporting summer. This is likely to be the form that the Women’s IPL eventually takes, with the competition taking place before the start of the men’s edition. Several franchises say they have already suggested such a women’s league to the BCCI.
There are, however, two main obstacles. The first is the feeling that, unlike in men’s international cricket, there is a huge amount of untapped opportunity to monetise and popularise Indian women’s internationals, and that it makes sense to pursue this approach before investing in an IPL. The second concern, which Mithali Raj has also highlighted, is that the current depth of Indian domestic talent is not sufficient to sustain eight high-quality sides.
While a Women’s IPL could, in theory, begin with fewer teams, this would give the franchises who were granted teams a significant long-term commercial advantage over those who were not, and risk putting off some fans whose franchises were not represented. Creating completely new teams, meanwhile, would miss out on the obvious marketing synergies between men’s and women’s teams for the same franchises.
So it seems likelier that the Women’s IPL, when it does begin, will include the same teams as in the men’s tournament. The tournament could well begin with each side playing everyone else only once in the group stage, rather than twice, which would reduce commercial risks and allow franchises to gauge what worked before expanding. Initially allowing each team five overseas players, rather than four, is one device that could safeguard quality in the early years.
The consensus among insiders is that the Women’s IPL will be launched at some point between 2020 and 2023. Yet if India are successful – and widely followed – in this year’s Women’s World T20 then the history of Indian cricket suggests that it could be sooner.
Many different IPLs
“I’m trying to extend the IPL and team brands rather than looking for the same teams playing because there will always be challenges with player availability,” Thomas says.
For IPL teams, attempts to expand their brands begin locally. Bangalore are “thinking about running a first division team under the RCB umbrella in the local leagues,” Thomas reveals: effectively, RCB would own and run a local club side. This could bring benefits both from a branding perspective and also a sporting one. Such a team – effectively a feeder team – would allow RCB to place its young players and coaches, thereby gaining greater involvement in their development. As Perth Scorchers have shown, the importance of continuity in T20 is such that their effectively 12-month-a-year team has consistently outperformed two-month-a-year teams who spend the same amount on players.
Given that IPL teams generally pay Indian players far more than their traditional domestic teams, it seems inevitable that franchises will attempt to exert greater control over their fitness and skill development during the IPL off-season. Greater use of coaches and scouts could also marry sporting needs with commercial benefits.
“We are thinking about how our coaching staff could not just be with us for the season but actually run selection trials, run our scouting and coaching clinics as a part of taking the brand into different markets,” Thomas explains. “We want to take that into thinking about how we can combine scouting with coaching clinics with selection trials and use that as a brand-building activity and expansion into other markets.”
It is a vision of a virtuous circle, in which sporting and commercial demands are not competing but mutually reinforcing.
In the international calendar, there remains a block from mid-September to early October, which the Champions League occupied until it was culled after 2014. The idea of a reincarnation is popular with other T20 leagues around the globe, who stand to benefit from the IPL’s reflected glory.
“It would be great to see the rebirth of the Champions League to allow a broader set of international players to show their skills in front of Indian crowds on Indian wickets,” says Badale.
Such an idea would become more feasible if global attempts to manage the number of T20 leagues each player was allowed to play in a year were successful, as this would limit the number of players who were eligible for multiple sides (which previously undermined the Champions League). Any reintroduction would also need to be accompanied by concerted attempts to grow the brand of the non-Indian teams, previously a huge handicap, which meant viewing figures for matches not involving Indian sides were often dire.
The prospect of a mini-IPL in the September window has also long been rumoured. Though the concept has appeal, whether it could be implemented in a way that would both ensure that the quality of players matched that in the main IPL, and did not dilute the value of the main IPL is a concern.
An alternative mooted by a senior broadcasting source is for the September block to be used for an IPL B-League. Such a competition could feature six teams, based in areas that don’t have an IPL side, and be a way of growing the league’s overall reach within India. One suggestion is for the top two sides in the B-League winning promotion to the following edition of the IPL itself, if it was indeed expanded to ten sides. In between the B-League and the IPL, promoted teams would be able to enter the player auction for overseas players. Yet there is scant appetite among IPL owners for a system of promotion and relegation to be introduced, because relegation could have dire consequences for teams’ commercial value.
“You lose out if you relegate that team and the players along with that team,” Thomas says.
But while the idea is still in the exploratory stage, it is conceivable that there could effectively be a two-tier IPL introduced, with the current eight teams retaining their berths and six new teams entering the B-League every year. The top two would enter the IPL and subsequently return to the B-League however they performed, where they could win promotion once again.
Badale is enthusiastic about a variant of the idea, for a youth league. Such a league would showcase the best young talent, and could be played before the auction. Teams could either be based in the same cities as their IPL sides, or paired with cities without IPL teams, in a similar way to how Major League Baseball teams are paired with Minor League sides. Such an approach would be in keeping with one of the IPL’s main objectives in its current broadcasting deal – to penetrate deeper within India and allow franchises more opportunity to grow their brands outside their home cities. Were the idea pursued though, it could create scheduling pressures with existing Indian domestic cricket.
The IPL could also attempt to monetise old talent. Thomas suggests a short annual Legends league. As well as games within their own and neighbouring cities, matches could be taken abroad, following the model of European football clubs. While previous legends matches in cricket have been underwhelming, an IPL Legends League could take matches both to new cities within India and to new markets with large expat populations, including Canada, Singapore, the UK and the USA.
The world over, domestic leagues are attempting to grow their fan base beyond their borders. The NFL has been playing in London since 2007, and it is widely expected that a franchise will be based there from 2021. The NBA has played regular season games in London since 2011 and in Mexico City since 2014. La Liga schedules an El Clasico at lunchtime every year – so the time difference suits Asia perfectly – and supports playing league matches abroad too.
Most instructive is the example of the Premier League, the most successful and lucrative league in the world beyond its borders. While it does not play league games overseas, its clubs were the first to recognise the commercial potential of Asia and other markets: Manchester United began pre-season trips to Asia in 1995, but Real Madrid only in 2003. The Premier League also benefited from shrewd marketing strategies, like emphasising exposure in foreign markets over short-term profit maximising, often giving countries the Premier League for a low price on free-to-air TV to grow interest.
Such strategies suggest possible templates for how the IPL could become more lucrative abroad. There are already signs the IPL is becoming more relevant to cricket fans abroad. In the UK, average viewing figures since Sky Sports started broadcasting it in 2015 have risen by 40%; there was a 23% viewing increase from 2017-18 alone.
To increase its overseas footprint, more marketing events abroad – like that in New York before last season, where over 1000 attended an event featuring Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh – are a certainty. RCB are even exploring the possibility of buying and branding local club sides in other countries, citing the Netherlands, South Africa and the USA as potential nations. More ambitiously, Kolkata Knight Riders already own franchises in the Caribbean Premier League and did in the now-defunct Global T20 League in South Africa. Other franchises suggest, however, that doing more with their existing IPL brands is a greater priority than partnering foreign T20 sides, questioning whether interest in overseas sides within India would justify their investment.
Other ideas are being mooted, including taking fan parks abroad – one insider suggests the UAE, UK, Malaysia, Singapore and even Germany (because of the large Indian and Afghan expat populations) as potential destinations. Pre-season or exhibition matches could be a way of franchises growing their foreign fan bases; so could occasional regular season matches – like the season opener. When the IPL has been played abroad – in 2009 and then 2014 – it has been because of the clash with national elections in India; for the same reason, some games may well be played abroad in 2019 too.
But the long-term attraction of playing regular season IPL matches abroad is limited both by the brevity of the season and financial realities. The Premier League has seen a reduction in the value of its new domestic broadcasting rights – crystallising its thinking that its main area for growth now lies in foreign markets. Yet as India’s population and economy grow, insiders believe that the best chance for the IPL’s greatest potential for further enrichment lies in cultivating new Indian fans.
Thomas explains: “Our first focus will be India, in terms of whatever we do, how does it benefit RCB in India first? Once we consolidate RCB in India, build our world view and what we call our replicable model, that’s when we will think about expansion.”
The development of IPL fan parks is a small illustration of how the league is trying to grow in rural India. This year there were a total of 36 fan parks – big screens in local parks or cricket grounds – all in cities that don’t host IPL teams, with average crowds estimated at 8000. Another indication of the IPL’s ambitions to grow was the broadcast in six different languages. Even seemingly cosmetic changes can make a huge difference to audiences: if league matches start at 7pm – rather than 8pm, as this season – it would increase the average viewership by 10-15%, according to the senior broadcasting source.
As attempts heighten to grow the IPL’s brand both abroad and especially within India, the revolution will continue. “I don’t think successful formats and successful businesses ever settle down,” Badale observes. “The IPL should be continuously innovating, and continuously developing.”
So for all the dizzying changes of the IPL’s first decade, the coming years promise to bring shifts just as seismic.