March 25, 2022: The biggest cricket pantomime, the Indian Premier League (IPL) , will raise its curtain at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai on March 26. The match will be between the reigning champions, Chennai Super Kings and Kolkata Knight Riders. One wonders as to who the Mumbai fans at the stadium will follow. Will it be the team captained by Ravindra Jadeja or Shreyas Iyer?
Both teams will not be playing in their home ground and have not done so for quite a while. The 2020 edition of the IPL was played in the UAE and so was the last half of the 2021 IPL.
This brings to light a concern about the loyalty factor amongst the millions of fans who have followed their teams religiously in the past. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic has taken its toll on the franchise owned teams. Branding and marketing their players and implementing innovative programs have not been possible.
Earlier, the host cities were plastered with attractive and innovative branding and one was made completely aware of each of their stars as well as their upcoming players. Physical interaction through events was what made the 2 months of the IPL the toast of the city and social interactions revolved around it.
The auction of the 15th edition of the IPL with the inclusion of two additional teams from Lucknow and Ahmedabad has given it an entire new look. Rohit Sharma, the Mumbai Indian captain, during an interview recently quite rightly stated that his team has no home advantage as only 5 from his squad have the experience of Mumbai.
The IPL is the life-line of Indian cricket and one that is essential to keep it afloat. The commercial success of the IPL is what makes the BCCI a force to reckon with in World cricket.
This takes one back to the early days of limited overs cricket when Kerry Packer made cricket into a profitable business venture. His effort of making cricket into entertainment and cricketers into superstars is what drew millions to watch it with great enthusiasm. The Gentleman’s game changed its course into one where only winners and success was appreciated and recognized.
Cricketers were looked upon as mercenaries who exploited the very game that they revered. Gradually the followers of cricket realized that it was not a pastime sport anymore but a business in itself and that the skills of the players playing it needed to be rightly compensated. The Packer movement is what made cricket into a multimillion dollar production and the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the various boards of Cricket benefited immensely from it.
In India, Mark Mascarenhas opened the doors to how cricket and cricketers could be marketed successfully. Cricket, has been blessed with such iconic marketing innovators who changed the very essence of the game which was dwindling from a lack of fans and followers. The BCCI too had their flamboyant marketeer in Lalit Modi.
He was instrumental in bringing the cricket circus, the IPL, into existence in 2008. He was fortunate that India a year before that had won the T20 World Cup under the captaincy of a dynamic cricketer from Ranchi. A young brigade of Indian cricketers came into the limelight and through this win, Indian cricket brought in young fans and followers.
Franchise cricket brought in professionals who exploited to create a fan base that was loyal and interactive. The core players of the franchise became heroes and young unknown successful ones their aspirational stars. The home matches gradually became an important factor where the crowd played a decisive part in demolishing the mental state of their opponents.
One feels this very element of emotional attachment will get drastically reduced this year. With matches being played only in Mumbai and Pune due to the restrictions and safety concerns of the dreaded epidemic, the buzz that surrounded the IPL earlier, may not be as thrilling as before. Furthermore, many of the superstars of the earlier decade of the IPL have either retired and the newer ones need to get themselves known. With nearly 230 players in the fray, identifying a team squad as well as individual players has become a Herculean task.
The paucity of time and the pandemic restrictions have not given the franchisees the leverage to do a carpet bombing marketing awareness exercise.
The drive to introduce their players, most of whom are unknown entities even in the cricketing world, seems not to have happened as yet.
This is precisely why franchise cricket needs continuity and loyalty that needs to be encouraged between the franchise and the players. The BCCI needs to discontinue the mindless auction and let franchise owners develop a system to buy, sell and develop players. Forming a new squad of players every 3 years has been one of the many concerns of the IPL.
Major sports franchise based teams in basketball, football; baseball and rugby around the world have built a squad of players who have played for them for years. This has made it easier for the fans to follow their individual players and teams.
The IPL 2022 squads have a new look to each of the teams. The players themselves will need to get acquainted with each other. For the fans it will be even harder. One hopes this does not become a matter of serious concern this year.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal.)