IPL will eat itself

I’m a purist. I like the strategy, the long-running individual battles, the pressure cooker environment of a Test match. Football is my favoured sport, but I would still take the last couple of Ashes series (the one’s in England, that one in Australia didn’t count) over just about any other sporting event going. Despite this, I’ve still really enjoyed the IPL. But it’s absolutely mental, it’s schizophrenic and I seriously doubt whether it’s sustainable unless Modi and team owners change their approach – the recent controversy around the new Kochi franchise is evidence enough, but even aside from that, there are worrying signs. I’ll just be focussing on it from a brand point of view, but there are a number of stories and blogs on the economics of the IPL over on Cricinfo and the BBC’s Soutik Biswas recently wrote a decent piece if you’re interested.

The first challenge is going to be building the team brands. This year these are starting to take some shape – Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai already have some strong local bonds forming. Rajasthan have started to build a reputation as plucky over-achievers, driven more by Warne’s captaincy than any superstar players. But versus other sports leagues in the world, there’s a huge challenge here – if you think of the Premier League for example, most of these teams were around for 100 years before the league was fully commercialised in the 90s. They had established rivalries, they have personalities (dirty Leeds, Spurs ‘playing the right way but inevitably bottling it’ etc.) – not to mention their roots in the local community. IPL teams are borrowing their personalities from their owners as much as anything – Vijay Mallya, Shahrukh Khan etc. As a brand owner, you’re not really picking a team to associate yourself with, you’re picking the owner or the players – given that celebrity marketing is so pervasive in India already, I’m not sure there’s anything new to gain there. The teams need to establish their own identities if they are going to become profitable in their own right – otherwise, what happens if one of the stars moves teams as the new franchises are talking about trying to do with Tendulkar?

The second question is over the approach both teams and brands are taking towards sponsorship and advertising around the IPL. Let’s take mobile manufacturers. I recently picked up a Kolkata Knight Riders replica shirt for a mate of mine at home – their main sponsor is Nokia, but on the sleeve there’s also an endorsement for Videocon. Videocon make lots of electrical goods, but mobiles are amongst them. Can you imagine Samsung allowing Chelsea to have another mobile manufacturer on the sleeve of their shirt whilst they are spending big money to be on the front? Can you imagine Chelsea wanting to do so? Both Chelsea and Samsung recognise there is more value in an exclusive agreement – it’s not a landgrab, it’s not sell as much space for as high a price as possible, it’s a mutually beneficial value exchange.

Then, during the course of the game you have the ‘Karbonn Kamaal’ catch – another mobile manufacturer sponsoring catches. One of the joys of cricket commentary has always been the little side conversations that go on in the regular breaks in the action. The IPL has sold these off. It’s a far cry from Henry Blofeld describing the activities of pigeons to Dominic Cork and Sunil Gavaskar telling us about how wonderful the MRF blimp is, how innovative they are to be bringing a blimp to India, just like their innovative tyres. Oh but wait, there’s a DLF Maximum, would you say that was a Citi Moment of Success Dominic? Of Course it was.

It doesn’t end there. Brands are paying ridiculous amounts for GRPs during the IPL – and their ads are on SO frequently. Every over gives an ad-break, most games seem to have a rotation of about 5-6 different ads max. This means with the 40 over breaks, plus the begining and end of the match and the innings break, we have around 45 ad breaks to deal with – do you really need your ad to be seen 8-9 times in 4 hours? But wait, that might not be enough, so we better engineer a way to get some longer ad breaks in. So in comes the Maxx Mobile Strategic Time Out (ooh look, another mobile manufacturer differenitating themselves by being associated with exactly the same thing as 10 other mobile manufacturers).

The Maxx Mobile Strategic Time Out annoys me more than anything. Commercialising all your commentary is one thing, but creating an unecessary break in a game which anyway has 40 convenient natural breaks is criminal. Not to mention the fact it’s the batting side that’s supposed to be using this break for strategic purposes – the bowler has to wait until the batsmen is ready anyway, if he wants to walk down the pitch and talk strategy with his partner, he can; if the coach wants to get a message on he can use the time honoured method of sending on the 12th man with new bats or gloves. Further, there isn’t really a batting strategy in T20 beyond belt the bugger out the ground whenever possible and if your eye is in, the last thing you want is a break for strategy discussion. It’s an absolute farce and it takes away from the spectacle of the game – that’s the last thing I’d want my brand to be associated with.

What all of this suggests to me is a short term outlook. Nothing like this has existed in India before and people don’t have any idea if it will last. The problem is that this short-term, gold rush approach is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The amount players will be paid next year is up, the amount the Pune and Kochi franchises have paid for their teams is mammoth. Where is all this revenue going to come from? Sooner or later brands are going to realise they’re not getting the value they thought from their investments – because how can you if every other mobile manufacturer is doing the same thing, sometimes even on the same shirt?

Sports have a difficult balance to strike, of course they need to bring in money. But fundamentally, once the sponsors and advertisers start to disrupt the game itself, they begin to undermine the very thing that they’re paying to associate themselves with – they become an irritant and the property itself is devalued. It seems to me that the IPL is being run first to generate profits, second to massage Lalit Modi’s ego and the cricket tournament itself being a distant third.

Unless they wake up, the IPL is going to eat itself.

UPDATE: Last night Indian income tax officials raided the IPL offices and some of Lalit Modi’s personal offices as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is partly due to all the noise he’s made around Kochi and Tharoor – if you’re going to attack a government minister in India, there’s likely to be a consequence. It looks like the BCCI will use the opportunity to seize greater control of the IPL. I doubt it will make much difference to any of the above as the BCCI hasn’t exactly shown a desire to put the sport ahead of the money flowing into their coffers in the past – but it does say something about the instability of the IPL as a property.

2 thoughts on “IPL will eat itself”

  1. The IPL approach sounds very similar to the MLB coverage. As far as I know, no MLB commercial initiative has created a new ad break but all the different features are sponsored – in the ground (when I was at Shea, a local florist sponsored a spot after one innings where a couple were identified on screen and were given a bunch of flowers if they kissed) and on the TV (telcoms sponsors the call to the bullpen, a car company sponsors the longest drive, bud light ice cold sponsors the freeze cam). The commentators never actually advocate any of the sponsors, but they frequently mention both their brand and their slogan

    1. I’ve watched a bit of MLB, but not enough to be a real expert. I’ve also been live once to Blue Jays vs White Sox at SkyDome (although I’m sure I have the teams the wrong way round there for the North American convention) and I think it was Panasonic Tuesday or something with some lucky fans taking home a TV (slightly preferable to a bunch of flowers).

      There are some parallels – Soutik Biswas’ piece that I linked talked about sport as entertainment in India rather than the sport itself being important. I think that’s closer to the North American model – clearly the cheerleaders employed in IPL being an obvious example of them borrowing from the US. The Premier League has moved us in that direction, but it can only move so far – there was uproar when our new American owners tried to introduce music on the scoring of a goal – English fans see this, cheerleaders and so on as a sleight on their ability to support the team vocally themselves – they don’t need encouragement.

      Despite this though, I see some important differences between the MLB and the IPL. Firstly, the strength of the teams as brands – yes, there is a franchise system and teams do occasionally get uprooted and moved across the country, but Mets, Yankees, Red Sox etc. are strong brands in their own right. Interestingly, those brands are even less interfered with than brands in the Premier League, let alone the IPL – you don’t see sponsors on shirts in the MLB (or any major North American sport as far as I’m aware).

      Secondly, as you have acknowledged yourself, baseball has not allowed sponsors and advertisers to encroach unduly on the game itself. Similar to cricket, baseball has enough natural breaks in the play for advertisers to capitalise on. I happen to think, even cutting away every over in the cricket is too frequent and does disrupt the potential for analysis of the game, but it’s not artificial at least, so I’m willing to accept it.

      Finally, it seems from your comment that the MLB is doing things in a much more intelligent way. Bud Ice (bleugh!) sponsoring the freeze cam is an intuitive match – Maxx Mobile and a strategic time-out isn’t – if it was the Accenture strategic time-out, I might have more time for it. One of my key objections to the commercialisation of the IPL is that it is so brazen and ham-fisted. If you want to name the best catch as the Karbonn Kamaal (kamaal means amazing) at the end of the game fine, but to talk about it for every catch is embarrassing. In the MLB, they thank sponsors for their contribution, but it doesn’t permeate the discussion of the game itself in the same way in my experience.

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