As the Indian Premier League kicked off on 9 April, its founder Lalit Modi took to Twitter to announce: “i said when we Launched in 2008 - i am creating a #recession #proof – product – well sitting back and in its 15th season - those words could not be more accurate.”
Indeed, from its launch during the global recession of 2008 to the economic slowdown since the pandemic of 2020, the IPL has survived – and thrived. The tournament was held in the UAE last year, and earned ₹4,000 crore as revenue. Its TV viewership was at the highest ever; in the UK, it beat that of some English Premier League (EPL) football matches.
Yet, as IPL’s popularity soars, a chunk of its Indian fanbase remains local. “You can carve the IPL fans into two categories - those that are from the same geography as the eight teams and those that are from the rest of India,” says Varun Gupta, managing director at Duff&Phelps, a financial consultancy firm that conducts annual evaluations of the brand IPL. “Over the years, fans from the first category have developed loyalty towards their city/state teams. For the rest of India, fans end up supporting one of these franchisees due to the presence of their heroes and marquee players such as a Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni or Rohit Sharma.”
But the names can be misleading, for IPL teams often have little representation from the cities/states they’re named after. In 2014, for example, Delhi Daredevils and Rajasthan Royals squads had only one player each from their regions. “There are no local players and therefore no local connect,” former India captain Bishen Singh Bedi had told Hindustan Times at the time. That, he’d added, would be among the main reasons IPL dies out eventually.
The prophecy hasn’t held up. But the question remains: what is the local connect of the IPL teams to their chosen regions?
Vocal for local
While league sports tends to be largely commercial in nature, there are crucial differences in the way the IPL and other leagues have evolved. Franchise based sports such as NFL and NBA are more comparable to IPL. Like them, the IPL’s connection to Indian cities is incidental. “When IPL was conceived, we’d given [the bidders] a choice between 10-12 venues,” says Ratnakar Shetty, former general manager of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which runs the IPL. “The cities were selected based on wherever they had cricketing infrastructure available.” So a team choosing Wankhede stadium named itself after Mumbai, one choosing the Eden Garden stadium named itself after Kolkata.
The bidders, too, were based on their capacity for making investment. “I remember the first year of IPL,” says Shetty. “There was a lot of uncertainty, grey areas. There wasn’t clarity on the support base teams would be able to cultivate and how many years they’d take to make a support structure for the team in the regions they play.”
Initially, IPL teams worked to build the local connect. ‘Icon players’ Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh played for the teams representing their respective cities and states. The BCCI, too, allotted each team ‘catchment areas’ to scout ‘uncapped’ players from – those who hadn’t played for Team India before. These were based on the proximity to the hometurf: Mumbai Indians, for example, was allotted Maharashtra and Gujarat. There were eight teams in the inaugural edition, and their catchment areas covered most parts of India where cricket was popular.
“It was a concept at the time,” says Shetty. “But it didn’t last beyond a couple of years... Franchises wanted to take best players in the country, just like they took the best foreign players. So catchment areas went away. Uncapped players are called for trials from anywhere in India.”
National over regional
The IPL teams are constrained by the way cricket is run in the country. Each state has its cricket associations, funded by the BCCI. These associations are in charge of training, tournaments and nurturing cricket in the region. In addition, cricketers have numerous commitments through the year. The Indian national team is among the busiest in the world, the uncapped players have many domestic tournaments Ranji Trophy, Syed Mushtaq Ali and Vijay Hazare Cup, among others, to juggle.
The IPL team scouts are known to keep an eye on these tournaments for upcoming talent, so showing up and performing in these matches matters. “For a club to be involved at the grassroots, it has to have round-the-year activities,” says Rajeev Risodkar, former BCCI umpire. “But the players are very busy. Often, they assemble 15 days before the tournament and then go away.”
Some IPL teams have attempted outreach towards the local communities. Both Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings have inter-school tournaments in their respective cities. The Rajasthan Royals offers cricket marketing courses in India and coaching in UK and UAE; the Kolkata Knight Riders has a ‘KKR Academy’ based in Bengaluru.
The revenue from IPL has led to increased budgetary allotments by the BCCI to the respective state associations too. “Before the IPL, state associations would work on an annual budget of ₹3-4 crore,” says Anant Vyas, former CEO of Rajasthan Cricket Association. “Today, they get on an average of ₹40 crore a year.” They also stand to earn from ticket sales and in-stadia advertisements. Besides, each match at the venue directly contributes to the local economy.
But perhaps the biggest contribution of IPL is making cricket a viable career for its players, especially in a country where sports often gets a short shrift. From Prithvi Shaw and T Natarajan to Shahrukh Khan and Murugan Ashwin, numerous talented players have been discovered and platformed by IPL team scouts. The success of the league experiment paved way for similar spinoffs in other sports. Today, there’s Pro Kabaddi League, badminton, hockey and others.
So, can the IPL teams do more? Certainly, says Suhail Chandhok, cricketer turned IPL commentator. “The elephant in the room is profit-making. When you’re paying players several crores and run operations, they have to look at profits.” Initially, he says, the teams were hesitant to make additional investments since many teams weren’t making profits. But the broadcast deal of 2018 nearly doubled the annual revenue of IPL franchisees, an analysis by howindialives.com found earlier this year: from ₹150-200 crore to ₹350-400 crore.
“Teams have a vested interest in growing local talent,” says Chandhok. “Everyone’s understood that if you want fandom and people to go crazy, you have to localize the teams and unlock that potential. So teams often buy some [uncapped] players for ₹20-40 lakh. They don’t need them except in worst case scenario, but they do it to give the players exposure [to the big league]. Eventually, if they work out, the IPL teams will reap benefits and so will the Indian team.”