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Cricket-lite

IPL as a Sporting-Entertainment Complex

Vidya Subramanian (subramanianvidya@gmail.com) works on sport and science and technology studies at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

 

The Indian Premier League is incidentally about cricket. It is a chance for software engineers to design better analytical software, film stars to seek publicity, players looking for better pay packets, businesses to look for better advertising opportunities, and television channels to improve their ratings—all are stakeholders in the game. 

 

The ideas in this essay owe their development to conversations and discussions with Rohan D’Souza, Gideon Haigh, Bishan Singh Bedi, Nalin Mehta, and participants of the SNU-INDAS Conference held in December 2014.

The Indian Premier League, with its three hours of intensity, has changed the way cricket is played, viewed and consumed; not just in India but globally. Once a quintessentially British game, the IPL seems to have made it a mass spectacle of fevered consumption. 

The IPL has been criticised for being a sort of “cricket-lite” which diminishes the game, degrading the “gentleman’s game”. However, in spite of all the condemnation, the IPL is now entering its eighth year and each year shows that the event and its popularity have persisted. This persistence, I argue, is because it has transcended cricket as a game to become a veritable sporting-entertainment complex.

The IPL has harnessed digital age technologies to consolidate brand identities, nurtured the global tastes of a newly cosmopolitan Indian middle class and combine distinct elements of service sector economies such as marketing, advertising and public relations with the sport of cricket. It may, arguably, be more useful to look at the IPL through a lens other than that of “pure” cricket, since the sport is but one of the many elements that constitute it.

Reality TV 2.0

The architect of the IPL—Lalit Modi—was quite clear about what it was intended to be

The IPL is an action-packed reality show. We are not pitching IPL against cricket; we are pitching it against the prime time (7 to 11 p.m.) of general entertainment channels...it’s an evening out. A Bollywood movie is three hours. This is a three-hour function. A lot of good food and catering and popcorn and ice cream for the kids.[i]

To an urban middle-class audience that seemingly enjoys the scripted immediacy and drama of reality television, Lalit Modi set out to sell a new brand of entertainment. It was structured, deliberately and carefully, as a platform; not just for advertisers seeking more eyeballs, but also for businesses that needed more brand recognition, business people who needed to pad their public image, film stars who sought publicity and for the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) to put on a cricket show in which India could never lose no matter which team won.

This move mirrored Kerry Packer’s attempt in the 1970s. Packer, an Australian newspaper magnate, was the man who gave the one-day game its familiar avatar when he set up World Series Cricket (WSC) and introduced revolutionary ideas such as coloured clothing, television cameras at both ends of the pitch, and games played at night under lights. This became a vehicle to not just popularise cricket, but also to make the game more lucrative, by structuring it around the global audience of the television set.

Uniquely suited to individual celebrity, the close-up-centred foundation of television programming helped transform sports performers (in all sports) into stars and celebrities in their own right[ii]. This allowed the transformation of players into something else: brands. The IPL provides a useful platform for the nurturing and consolidation of these brand identities for a variety of celebrity figures—both cricket-related and otherwise. In the evolution of brand building and marketing, and in terms of the publicity potential and advertising revenues, then, the IPL is a logical next step; but perhaps not, as is often argued, a next step for cricket.

Branding Cricket

Importing the idea of privately owned franchises from a combination of soccer’s EPL (English Premier League) and the American NFL (National Football League), Lalit Modi had created a television-centric, cash-rich, celebrity-driven, non-national, cricket-based product that he went on to sell to the world. Cricket—while an essential part of the assembly of the IPL—cannot be considered the entire edifice.

IPL’s platform has been constructed on the foundation of television and ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies), even if it is assembled by bringing together several other, sometimes even unrelated, building blocks. It is through advertisements, fantasy league games, live streaming on mobile phones, publicity on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and fan engagement through a variety of other measures such as merchandising, etc that the IPL garners popularity. Cricket in the subcontinent is an immensely profitable venture precisely because of its immeasurable utility as a platform through which to channel all the aforementioned ways of marketing and brand building. No longer just a game, the IPL has become the kind of platform that can provide more “eyeballs” than any other marketing gimmick[iii].

The case of India Cements is an illuminating example. India Cements, owners of the Chennai Super Kings franchise, was amongst the least known franchise owners and brands in the first edition of the IPL in 2007. With a marketing strategy that included buying the most popular Indian player and one-day captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni (the most expensive player in the first edition of the IPL at $1.5 million), India Cements was all set to use their IPL team as a high-profile “calling card”.

N Srinivasan, Vice-Chairman and Managing Director of India Cements, is even quoted to have said, “Even if the company had spent Rs. 1500 crore on brand promotion, it wouldn’t have got a fraction of the publicity that Super Kings got us. The team’s brand equity will help expand our business in north India. We have big plans to be a pan-India corporate group”.[iv]

The Spectator-Consumer

In creating a purely domestic sporting league based on city affiliations that no longer tug at the heart strings of patriotism and nationalism, the IPL has created a version of the game in which the fan must jettison the idea of the country being supreme in favour of loyalty to a brand—be that of a cricketer, or a film star “owner” of a team, or indeed a favourite consumer brand. This urbane cosmopolitan fan belonging to the new middle class of India enjoys the idea of the best international players playing for teams such as Kolkata and Chennai; and relishes the prospect of an evening out with friends at an event with food, drinks, music, cheering, and celebrities.

In 2009, former West Indian batting great Brian Lara, while calling cricket a “dying sport” and “welcoming” the new Twenty20 form of the game, suggested that this new format brings to the sport a whole new kind of spectator[v]: “ones that just want to go to the game and don't even know what happens”. He appears to suggest that the draw here is not the game of cricket itself but all the razzmatazz attached to the spectacle.

The IPL then is a version of cricket which is an industry and a platform, on which ride several other interests and stakeholders. Software engineers who can design better analytical software, film stars who seek publicity, players looking for better pay packets, businesses looking for better advertising opportunities, and television channels trying to improve their ratings—are all stakeholders in the game. The sport itself is no longer the centre of the event of the match.

A Whole Other Beast

With all the diverse interests riding on the match, cricket as a sport seems to have developed several foci around which it is played. In this de-centred universe, the game is just one of many cores that are important. In comparison to being the sport that Ashis Nandy nostalgically described as a “ritualised garden party”[vi], cricket in its IPL avatar is first and foremost a platform. Mediated as it is by technology, the IPL has proved to be an excellent vessel for the promotion, development, and sustenance of several other industries.

The target audience for the IPL is the urban middle-class consumer with a fairly large disposable income and immense purchasing power. The IPL sells to this audience a lifestyle that is in tune with ideas of global brands and exotic vacations. With the emergence of such a League, this cosmopolitan Indian cricket fan appears to be embracing more fully his other identity of a consumer, switching easily between brands, commodities, and IPL teams as the fortunes of one overtake another on the sporting, and indeed, advertising field.

It is therefore not very useful to pose what is perceived as the frivolity of the IPL against the formulaic aggression of one-day cricket and the lost purity of the test match form. For the IPL to be rejected, embraced, doubted, and critiqued merely as another form of cricket is unhelpful, because it is—and perhaps always was—a whole other beast.

Notes

[i] Ajita Shashidhar. ‘Each IPL franchise could be worth $5 billion’, Outlook Business, 08 March 2008 (accessed: 30 March 2015). http://www.outlookbusiness.com/article_v3.aspx?artid=100640

[ii] Garry Whannel. ‘Television and the Transformation of Sport.’ Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 625, The End of Television? Its Impact on the World (So Far), September 2009. pp 205-218.

[iii] Vidya Subramanian (2012): "Cricket in the Fast Lane: Politics of Speed", Economic and Political Weekly, 15 December, avaiable at http://www.epw.in/commentary/cricket-fast-lane.html, accessed on 10 April 2015. 

[iv] Alam Srinivas and T.R. Vivek. IPL An Inside Story: Cricket and Commerce. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2009. p68.

[v] Cricinfo Staff (2009): "Lara hopes artistry returns to Twenty20 batting", ESPNCricinfo, 8 April, available at http://www.espncricinfo.com/westindies/content/story/398808.html, accessed on 11 April 2015. 

[vi] Ashis Nandy. ‘The Tao of Cricket’, in A Very Popular Exile. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007. pp 38-41.

 

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