The Indian Premier League is the glitziest and most riveting cricket tournament in the world. Importantly, the most valued too. Duff and Phelps assessed it at 6.8 billion USD in 2019. A whopping 462 million fans watched the league that year which, according to BARC certified data, was up 12% over the previous season.
Less than a couple of years earlier, Star Sports had coughed up an eye-popping INR 16347 crore for the media rights for five years. Rights for the preceding 10 years had been sold to Sony Pictures Network for INR 8200 crore for 10 years, and digital rights to Hotstar (2015-17) for INR 303 crore.
In real terms, this showed a near four-fold spike in media value alone. While there are a few sports properties more valuable today (Premier League, NFL, NBA to name three), nothing comes close to the mind-boggling growth of the IPL: in money terms as well as viewership. Extraordinary for a league only 12 seasons old!
None of these facts and stats are new. I am reiterating them here only to provide a context to the 13th edition of the tournament which starts on September 19, and highlight how misplaced cynicism about the IPL, when it started in 2008, has turned out to be.
Cricket connoisseurs had seen no merit in T20 cricket and in fact saw the league as further degradation of a pristine sport, its technique and ethos. Critics of the BCCI said this was another example of how the Indian Board had sold its soul to mammon instead of nurturing the game to excellence in the country.
They pooh-poohed the BCCI’s explanations that the IPL would help unearth more young talent, and in fact warned that a commercially-run league would become a breeding ground for corruption. I dare say even players were skeptical, though obviously happy that they were getting hitherto unheard of financial rewards.
Not all concerns were unfounded. The IPL has been hit by issues and controversies almost every season, including the dreaded match and spot fixing. India had barely recovered from the circa 2000 trauma of Hansie Gate when corrupt practices hit the IPL in 2013.
The case, which also involved the franchise owned by the BCCI president, looked like it would destroy the IPL, more so when the Supreme Court had to step in too after being petitioned by members from within the Board itself. But the IPL survived the ordeal, quite incredibly emerging stronger.
So what has made the league a runaway hit? There were a few crucial factors in my opinion.
India winning the inaugural T20 World Cup (South Africa, 2007) was one. Few had heard of this format prior to the tournament. A recalcitrant BCCI, in fact was recalcitrant, and the last Board to agree to play. This apathy rubbed off on senior players, most of whom ducked going to South Africa.
As it happened, India won the first game against Pakistan in a bowlout then the final against the arch rivals in a heart-stopping climax, and the sub-continent erupted. New captain MS Dhoni became a superstar, and Indian fans took to the 20-over format like hardcore addicts to a mind-altering drug.
The sensational victory triggered off frenetic activity in the Indian cricket establishment, already feeling the heat from a `rebel’ T20 series, ICL, announced by media tycoon Subhash Chandra some weeks earlier. It required splendid imagination, swift decision-making, and fine execution – none of them strong suits of the BCCI – to counter this threat.
Lalit Modi, lurking in the penumbra of the BCCI administration for several years, was given this task. He was by mind and temperament an impressario. He always wanted the limelight. This was the moment he had been waiting for. He seized it with both hands.
Modi astutely and aggressively ring-fenced the IPL after it was announced. He went about marketing the idea of the league to some of the best-known faces in Indian business and entertainment. He then banned Indian cricketers from joining the ICL, asked other Boards to do the same for their players ensuring that the crème de la crème of talent was available for the Indian league.
The cricket universe was seeing its biggest upheaval since the Packer Circus. Perhaps even bigger. Franchises were sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, and in the players auction that followed, talent was bought for eye-popping sums that had the newswires buzzing all over the cricket universe.
What remained to be seen was how Indian audiences would react to a league of their own. The issue was more or less in the first match itself when Brendon McCullum of Shah Rukh Khan’s Kolkata Knight Riders used his bat like a blazing magnum to strike 158 off just 73 balls against Vijay Mallya’s Royal Challengers at the Chinnaswamy Stadium.
This incredible knock set the tempo and tenor for a high-octane tournament that had not just India, but the cricket world in thrall. The cocktail of big business, stars from the entertainment industry, colourful cheerleaders on grounds and of course cricket was heady and irresistible.
There was more in store. India was hooked. The cheapest franchise, Rajasthan Royals, with Shane Warne leading a bunch of blithe youngsters, won the first title against all odds. The topsy-turvy nature of T20 cricket had a compelling appeal all its own.
India was hooked, cricket was never to be the same again!