HONG KONG — The once unfathomable game of cricket, played by two teams of unfit men in identical white clothes on a field so vast spectators can scarcely see what is happening, has been transformed into an in-your-face, super-rich, made-for-TV spectacle — thanks to the Indian Premiere League.
Although the franchise only got underway April 18 with a match between Bangalore Royal Challengers and the Kolkata Knight Riders, IPL has already become an object lesson for other minority sports and sportscasters around the world.
In January, Sony and its Singapore partner World Sports Group paid $1.03 billion for TV and promotion rights in India over the next decade.
Sports channel Sony Max will be India’s sole broadcaster of the IPL games, and Sony claims to have sold its entire advertising inventory this year for more than $50 million.
But it is not just auds in India that are watching: Australia’s Network Ten and European satcaster Setanta have signed up for five-year deals; Dubai’s Arab Digital Distribution took 10 years’ worth. Even in the U.S., Willow TV has acquired rights to distribute on TV, radio, broadband and Internet.
League is the brainchild of Lalit Modi, an Indian entrepreneur who is also a board member of Indian cricket’s ruling body, the BCCI.
After years of trying to get similar events off the ground, he succeeded in getting approval for a competition that has shades of European club soccer and American sports franchises.
“With more than a billion people in India and (cricket) being more than a religion to many, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be bigger than English Premiership soccer,” international sport’s most lucrative franchise, Modi says.
Its genius is that Modi and the BCCI have made the game easy to understand and even easier to root for.
They have created eight city-based franchises, instead of the counties, regions or nations that contest regular events. They will play a high-speed version of cricket called Twenty20that guarantees every game will be completed inside three hours.
There will be 59 matches and the whole event will last just 44 days.
Bids for team sponsorship came in at $724 million, close to double the $400 million IPL had set as a minimum.
India’s entertainment industry, traditionally dominated by Bollywood, had no problem spotting the opportunity.
The Deccan Chronicle newspaper group paid $107 million for the Hyderabad team; media investors including Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan Murdoch paid $67 million for the Jaipur franchise; Bollywood stars Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta bought outfits in Kolkata (Calcutta) and Mohali respectively.
Other commercial opportunities — drinks (Pepsi, $12.5 million for five years), umpire sponsor (Kingfisher Airlines), co-sponsor (Hero Honda, $22.5 million for five years) — were also quickly snapped up.
Each city’s 16-man squad can include a maximum of eight foreign players and a minimum of four under-22. And each must include at least four players from the team’s home base.
Handling of players has been one of the IPL’s many controversial aspects — stars have been bought and sold like cattle. But few have much sympathy for players who can each make $1 million before prize money and bonuses in addition to their regular season and national team salaries back home.
Draft features the sport’s top international stars, including South Africa’s Jacques Kallis, Pakistan’s Shoaib Malik, Australia’s Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting. Four of the five top player contracts were tended to India’s homegrown stars — Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
England’s top dozen players are contractually barred from joining, but most commentators reckon that the vast sums on offer will soon tempt some to break ranks and head for India.