The West Bengal government’s farcical celebrations of the victory of the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the Indian Premier League (IPL), and the “mild” lathi-charge that followed, capped a league season that hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Earlier, the Delhi police smashed an illegal betting ring. A spot-fixing sting operation led to five players being suspended. Shah Rukh Khan, KKR’s owner, was banned from Wankhede Stadium. Luke Pomersbach of Royal Challengers Bangalore was arrested on molestation charges. Taken together, these incidents, and the airtime they received, may have had a negative impact on the league’s image. Brand IPL is now generally estimated to have fallen in value. However, the weakest link in terms of perception, according to marketing experts, is the non-transparent and arbitrary governance standards set by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), rather than a focus on the scandals.
In 2010, Brand Finance UK, a global brand valuation consultancy, estimated the IPL’s brand was worth over $4.1 billion (approximately Rs 18,450 crore). In 2012, the Indian arm, Brand Finance India, released a revised estimate of $2.92 billion, or about Rs 16,200 crore. While brand valuations are notional, a drop in brand image translates into lower media-related revenues. Indeed, that seems to be the case. While stadiums were full through the IPL’s fifth season, media earnings declined. Television rating points, or TRPs, have dropped steadily over the league’s five years, from 4.81 in season one (2008), to 3.39 in 2011 and 3.27 in 2012 (over the first 68 matches). This is despite reach in viewership rising from an estimated 102 million in 2008 to 160 million in 2012. Taken together, the implication is that more people may watch the IPL nowadays but they watch it for much shorter durations. Thus, advertisement rates have also fallen, reportedly from the stratospheric levels of Rs 5 lakh for a 10-second spot to around Rs 4.25 lakh or less. The nine franchisees have gate collections and merchandise sales to buttress their share of media fees doled out by the BCCI. But “gates” are scarcely enough to compensate for lower advertisement revenues.
It’s time for the BCCI to take a hard look at the hot property it controls and review the positioning. Is the IPL really about packaging high-quality cricket in bite-sized chunks? Or is it a soap opera, which competes for audiences with other soaps in offering mass-entertainment? Right now, it’s being treated by the BCCI as a mix of cricket-plus-soap. That confused positioning cannot continue for much longer without the brand suffering serious deterioration. If it’s a soap, all the tamasha and the scandals may not matter. But nor would the credibility of the cricket on display. In an analogy, nobody takes WWE wrestling seriously, though it’s staple entertainment on TV. The IPL could be headed that way if it continues to opt for masala at the expense of credible cricket. On the other hand, if it’s cricket that’s the central theme of the IPL, and if cricket is to retain credibility, a quantum jump is required in the standards of governance and transparency. While little in the BCCI’s history suggests that it is capable of delivering on that front, it may have to make the effort for the sake of its own bottomline.