Season set to start April 18

HOLLYWOOD — By many standards, the 2008 inaugural season of Indian Premier League cricket was a smashing success: boffo ratings for 59 matches, many aired in primetime on Sony’s SET Max, bringing in advertising worth more than $50 million.

Kunal Dasgupta, CEO of Sony unit MultiScreen Media, which shares the league’s TV rights with investor World Sports Group, told Variety at the time, “IPL is the crown jewel. It’s going to do even better next year.”

With the season set to start April 18, that claim appears to be put to the test.

Dasgupta is gone, victim of a brouhaha with the Board of Cricket Control in India over sponsorship deals. And various news agencies are refusing to report on the games over the league’s desire to control coverage.

As a result, the board voided the league’s original contract with the network, putting it up for rebid and forcing MultiScreen and World Sports to renegotiate. This time around, they ponied up 82 billion rupees ($1.6 billion) — well above the original $1.02 billion — for the 10-year rights.

Meanwhile, security concerns have driven the tournament from India to South Africa. Following last month’s attack on the Sri Lanka team in Pakistan, IPL players, recruited by the teams from all over the world, feared for their safety on the subcontinent.

The Indian government, with national elections scheduled for the same time, couldn’t guarantee security for both elections and cricket. It wanted the games postponed. Instead the cricket board opted to move them, irritating India’s rabid fans.

Despite these problems, MultiScreen is upbeat about the coming tourney.

“Given that season one of IPL was such a huge success, expectations are naturally very high,” says MultiScreenchief operating officer N.P. Singh. “We are working very closely with IPL to make season two an even bigger success.”

The season kicks off with a doubleheader in Cape Town, and the 56 matches culminate with thefinal on May 24 in Johannesburg. Tickets for opening day are sold out, and only a few remain for the April 19 game. Bollywood stars Preity Zinta, Shah Rukh Khan and Shilpa Shetty, who also own teams, are headed over to add to the glitz.

Singh says matches will be played in the afternoon in South Africa to air live in primetime in India, as they would if the games were played on the sub-continent.

Concerns about whether ad sales would match last year’s, given the world recession, have turned out to be groundless. “We have already signed up nine sponsors and are confident of selling at least 80% of the inventory before the first ball is bowled,” Singh says.

MultiScreen hopes scatter sales will raise more coin during the matches. Ten-second ad spots are said to be going for $7,000-$8,000. Sponsors include Coca-Cola, Hyundai, Airtel Digital TV, Havell’s and Vodafone, according to the Business Standard.

Among the changes in store for the new season are a wraparound show “Extraaa Innings.”

“It will showcase a much sleeker production, with more action from the ground and hosted by young, vibrant and popular TV personalities,” Singh says.

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