As the fifth season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) approaches, there is already an air of trepidation about the league, one that mirrors the bemusement that most Indian fans feel after the stomping the national team has received in Australia and in England. For the IPL, this is extremely worrying; because the lifeblood of a professional sports league’s popularity and profitability is the superstar athletes who are the local heroes of the cities and the country where the league operates.
The IPL since its inception has been no exception, catering to the creation of Indian heroes. Even the player auction favours local talent, expecting them to sell tickets, merchandise, and create team and city loyalty. The team captains and the icon/franchisee players are almost always Indian, and, if possible, from the city where the team originates — such as Sachin for Mumbai, and Sehwag for Delhi. Indeed, this is the basic truth about how professional sports teams become popular: thanks to, first, their home fans’ loyalty; and second, to the players who represent the teams and become their faces/brand ambassadors.
Fans, however, who’ve watched the shellacking by the Brits and the Aussies are going to be a little shy about getting behind their local heroes, watching their matches, and wearing their jerseys. One can’t justify the creation of a hero with all-vanquishing superpowers immediately after eight straight Test match losses. Unsurprisingly, this will also take some of the focus, revenues and viewership away from the IPL. Other leagues might survive this; but the IPL will find it harder, given that its duration is simply too short to help in the creation of a fierce loyalty.
The IPL has to cannibalise Team India’s success. Unless the national team turns things around, the IPL loses lustre. The crucial cultural insight here is that it’s also essential that local heroes actually act the part. Sports personalities and movie stars are the aristocrats of modern societies; the former, in particular, invoke passion and patriotism like no other. In India, cricketers always have a short cut to societal greatness, given their familiarity to each and every member of a country’s population. The IPL, thus, is a league that expects to make heroes of legends, and stars of future heroes.
That cultural impact is central to the IPL’s business model. Sponsors expect players to be their brand ambassadors. That’s why a majority of the rights and benefits on sale – beyond signage and brand dissemination – pertain to product promotion via a team’s players. Sponsors, clearly, aren’t that interested in superstars in their teams who aren’t Indian. Sure, there are exceptions – Chris Gayle, perhaps, or Shane Warne – but for the most part, an ersatz patriotism plays a big part in advertising, marketing and sales.
It wouldn’t help the league much if international players became the mainstay for selling jerseys, filling stadiums, or attracting sponsors, for two main reasons. Firstly, during the IPL, with the exception of the Indian team, Test-playing nations continue to have ICC fixtures; therefore, the players, unless they have already retired (and hence have a limited marketing window), are likely to miss a significant portion of the tournament. Secondly, given the roster limitations, teams can at most field four international players in the playing XI, and need to rotate most of them — therefore, the focus automatically shifts to the Indian stars, or emerging stars. So, if there are few superstars on the horizon who can don the mantle of the graying legends on their way to retirement, then it’s a cause for concern for the various franchises, and the league’s profitability may wane.
The glow from that world-beating performance in April 2011, that brief aura of invincibility, has well and truly faded. And the IPL will suffer because of it. Its icons and local heroes need to propel the league beyond the realm of a mere tournament, and show that it has teeth beyond just the 50-odd days of bright craziness. Unless the young Indian fan is proud of wearing his or her favourite players’ jersey, and feels that the local flavour makes great role models and defines the new generation of “Indians who can”, the heroes and the zeros will be one and the same. No one wants to sport their loyalty for a team or for a star that flatters to be flattened. And if the national team doesn’t turn it around soon, the IPL will be the cross that Indian cricket will be forced to bear.
The author is a Delhi-based sports attorney