The Indian Premier League’s fifth season (IPL 5) has just about reached its halfway mark, and the most significant highlight thus far has been the fact that there haven’t been any. It’s been an unremarkable four weeks. And, while in any other year an obstacle-free season would be considered, perhaps, a welcome circumstance, this year the IPL and the sport of cricket both need to remain relevant. This is in many ways ironic, since a low-key IPL would ordinarily be a pleasant and unexpected relief given how tumultuous the last fiscal year has been for Indian cricket, post the World Cup victory.
Unfortunately, the IPL is simply not in a position comfortable or favourable enough to simply write off a stagnant fifth edition. This year’s revenue and profitability plateau could severely impact the value of the sponsorships going into the central revenue pool, which are being renegotiated as the IPL enters its much-anticipated season 6. Given that the big-ticket contract renewals for title sponsorship and official sponsors start after IPL 5, it’s imperative that the league continue to flourish and attract increased viewership. It needs to, in addition, start converting unique viewers into die-hard fans. By season 5, one would have expected the league to have exponentially increased its collateral revenues, especially gate receipts and merchandise. It appears, however, that the IPL is still clubbed with, or compared to, other entertainment properties. If that fear becomes a reality, then the league faces an uphill battle to remain relevant as an asset in the emerging and growing domain of professional sports.
In other words, how the IPL fares in its approaching test of monetary value will depend crucially on its ability to raise its cultural profile — a task it seems to be failing at. There seems to be a relative increase in the disinterest displayed by the general audience, as initial viewership statistics for this season imply a level of stagnation or, even worse, decline. This is troubling because the cost of associating with the IPL over the first five years has been consistently increasing, whether through advertising or sponsorship. However, there does not appear to be any visible increase in team or city loyalty, despite a concerted effort by each of the franchises.
Why IPL 5 isn’t generating the kind of interest that previous seasons managed to rustle up effortlessly is not yet clear. But there appears to be one legitimate competitor that has taken centre stage in the past month, and will continue to do so over the next four weeks as well — European football. IPL 5 is vying for the same target viewers as are the powerhouse English Premier League (EPL), Spain’s glitzy La Liga, and the last stages of the UEFA Champions League. It’s no secret that football in India, and especially European football, is fast emerging as a legitimate threat to cricket’s once unassailable position at the top in terms of television presence and urban, cultural power.
And, unfortunately for the IPL, 2011-12 happens to be one of the most electrifying and competitive seasons that European club football has witnessed in recent memory. The EPL, which arguably commands the largest television viewership for a sports property in terms of India viewers, is racing towards a sudden-death finish, with the upstart Manchester City breathing down the neck of the league’s very divisive leader, Manchester United. With less than three weeks left to go, the race will be to the finish — and Indian fans will be riveted. La Liga is also set for a breathless finish, with an upset looming as Real Madrid look to finally dethrone the most successful club in the world, FC Barcelona. Nobody’s willing to count out the great Messi-Xavi-Villa combination coached by the now embattled Guardiola; therefore interest in La Liga will again be heightened over the next four weeks. La Liga, despite its unfavourable timings for the Indian palate, seems to have overcome all obstacles as it builds an Indian fanbase via Real and Barca. And, May 19 is the biggest day of all in European football as Chelsea faces Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, each having defeated a favoured La Liga opponent in stunning, last-second fashion.
Simply put, European football is set to dominate the month of May, and this may just be at the cost of IPL 5’s presence, on-screen and off. It appears that IPL 5 is at risk of becoming irrelevant, and consequently at risk of reduced profitability as it moves towards the second half of the season. Unless it can overcome the perceived challenges, one can expect ripples in the future contract renewals — and question marks surrounding the actual value of the league itself, and of the individual franchises as they look for future exits or strategic investments.
The author is a Delhi-based sports attorney.
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