Sixes, Spectacle, Success: IPL’s Entertainment Bonanza

The fact is that franchise cricket, as it’s evolving, is entertainment that uses cricket as a medium.

Published : May 03, 2024 10:10 IST - 8 MINS READ

Australia and Sunrisers Hyderabad opener Travis Head’s barnstorming batting this season has heralded the arrival of a new era in IPL cricket.
Australia and Sunrisers Hyderabad opener Travis Head’s barnstorming batting this season has heralded the arrival of a new era in IPL cricket. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Australia and Sunrisers Hyderabad opener Travis Head’s barnstorming batting this season has heralded the arrival of a new era in IPL cricket. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Thirty-one 200-plus scores two-thirds of the way through the IPL season. Eight innings of 250-plus. The white ball slowly turning crimson with the proverbial blood and sweat of bowlers pasted on every inch of its surface. Mayhem.

An injury may have stopped me from bowling a few years ago, but in my heart, I will always be a spinner. And that heart has been aching this entire IPL season. So much so that I can’t bear to watch the massacre of my ilk anymore on Jio Cinema. As Travis Head bludgeons Ravi Bishnoi’s soul into nothingness, there is no respite for my shattered nerves. On a particularly bad day, I am ashamed to admit, I descend to the depths of switching to the inanity of screaming Indian anchors and loud-mouthed politicians on one of the thousands of news channels competing to grant me the gift of deafness. On mute, they offer unadulterated comic relief. I smile again.

Is the IPL actually about cricket?

Like everyone who truly loves the sport of cricket, for the past few weeks, I have questioned the future of the sport as we know it. I asked myself some fundamental questions: Is this a game of ball and bat? Is it even cricket? In my depths of despair, I even allowed myself the thought (forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned): would anyone in the future even want to be a bowler?

In seeking the answers to such existential questions, I fell back on a method that has served me well through my long career in corporate life and my approach to writing. I went back to my first principles.

The crucial first question I asked myself was: What exactly does a franchise seek to achieve with its cricket team? The answer, unsurprisingly, was money. This should, of course, be no surprise given that the owners have bid large sums of money for the teams and paid enormous amounts for players at auctions. CVC Partners (Gujarat Titans) or the Ambani family (Mumbai Indians), to name just two, are not in the business of throwing money at anything that does not beget it.

Having established that, the next question was: who brings in the money? Fans were the obvious answer.

Yes, fans put their bums on the stadium seats. But sport, particularly cricket in India, franchise or otherwise, has long moved on from selling tickets as a revenue model. The biggest contribution of fans is that they lend their eyeballs to sponsor-driven free live streaming. They also buy team-branded jerseys, flags, and water bottles and spend their hard-earned money on online gambling sites.

The final question to ask then was: What do fans want from franchise cricket, particularly the IPL, to fork out their savings over 10 weeks of matches? Entertainment was the deafeningly loud answer.

Entertainment and experiences

This mental exercise took me back to a 2021 interview with Jonathan Becher, president of Sharks Sports & Entertainment LLC, the parent organisation of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks [Ice] hockey team. Asked what the focus of his company was, he said: “We have plenty of [ice] hockey, but we are in the business of entertainment. That’s the fundamental thing. One of the entertainments is professional hockey. More and more, people don’t come to venues just to see what happens. They come to make memories. They bring their kids, so they want something. They’re coming (if they want to come in person) to remember what their overall experience looks like and what that journey is. Is it better if they come to our physical location? While there are reasons for them to show up in our physical spaces, we’re okay if they interact with us digitally as well.”

Becher then went on to add how he as president looks at the industry and his role: “My role and my focus (beyond the overall strategy) is that I have emotional and practical leadership for two of our strategic objectives: (a) non-traditional sources of revenue growth. We call it ‘TBTR: Think Beyond the Rink’, and (b) reimagining all of our experiences from scratch so that they are digital and mobile-first as opposed to in-arena first.

“We’re in the experience business,” he continued. “Much like retailers compete for a share of wallets, we’re competing for a share of entertainment. That’s the focus of this industry.”

And therein lies the crux of the matter. The fact that it is in the experience business is precisely why every IPL pitch in 2024 resembles the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. Boundary ropes have developed a magnetic attraction to the pitches. The Impact Player rule has been introduced.

IPL teams this season have pushed up the PowerPlay average to 12 runs per over. Hyderabad put on a staggering 125 runs in its first six against Delhi, the highest all-time PowerPlay score. The extra batter that teams can now bring in has ensured that the hitting continues even after the PowerPlay. When you know you are playing with seven batters instead of six, it gives you a license to hit not just the Impact Player but all who come in before and after him. Notwithstanding the venerated Suresh Menon’s lament in  The Hindu this week on the six-hitting topic that ‘repetition doesn’t create memories’, the reality is that the fans love the decimation of bowlers. It appeals to the baser instincts just as much as it did to spectators witnessing the blood and gore of Roman gladiatorial contests. As Becher reminds us in that interview, ‘We live in an instant gratification culture. Long-form art is dead’.

Cricket’s Blue Ocean

Now for the billion-dollar question: where do we go from here?

In 2006, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne wrote a path-breaking book called Blue Ocean Strategy. It showed the value of innovative thinking in building uncontested marketplaces they called Blue Oceans rather than trying to gain market share in existing, crowded ones labelled Red Oceans. Kim and Mauborgne suggested that non-disruptive creation is a path to new industries, new jobs, and profitable growth, but without the pain of shuttered companies, hurt communities, or lost jobs of disruption in its wake. It’s a path beyond disruption where business and society can thrive together.

This is the path the administrators are taking with franchise and international cricket. We, as fans, analysts, and experts, need to step back and consider this rationally rather than emotionally.

I told the story in  Sportstar a few years ago about how T20 as a format has existed in one form or another since it debuted as Works Cricket in England in the aftermath of the First World War. A hundred years later, the IPL and the ecosystem that has grown around it have elevated their appeal to the point that it attracts hundreds of millions of views per match on live-streaming platforms and ensures packed stadiums through the 10 weeks of entertainment. The efficacy of the approach needs no greater proof than the fact that the BCCI encashed a broadcast rights valuation of $6 billion from the league.

The fact is that franchise cricket, as it’s evolving, is entertainment that uses cricket as a medium. To enhance the entertainment value, the experience the fans crave must be catered to. That experience, as fan response has shown over the last month, is overwhelmingly positive when it comes to embracing high-scoring matches facilitated by the innovations introduced. What the IPL has done is throw open a Blue Ocean. The ships that sail into it now, one suspects, will include the rest of the cricket leagues.

The Future of Cricket

In the meantime, the Red Oceans will continue to thrive.

Domestic cricket across formats, including the T20, remains an important part of the sport. From a Blue Ocean standpoint, it is from here that the skills that make franchise cricket so entertaining for fans are developed, and it is here that the franchisees look towards while picking new talent for their squads.

Indeed, it is here, at the intersection of the two oceans, in what I call the Orange Zone, where there is give and take between the two, that life gets interesting and provides hope for the sport of cricket. This is how it works. Franchise cricket, in particular, and the T20 format, in general, bring money to the administrators of the sport. Non-franchise T20 and the longer formats of cricket are the nurseries for cricketing talent and skills. The two need each other to survive and thrive.

The icing on the cake is international cricket. When Australia and India face off in a Test match or at an ICC tournament, or the two oldest rivals of the sport battle for the Ashes, nationalistic passions are aroused. It is not so much about experience at that point as the result. Head suddenly finds his franchise fans cheering his dismissals. In the stands and on their couches and office chairs, with eyeballs on the live stream, are a broad cross-section of fans straddling the banks of the two oceans.

In a few weeks, many of the players on show at this IPL will shed their franchise jerseys and stride to the wicket in the USA and West Indies, adorned in their national gear, for the men’s T20 World Cup. Boundaries will lose their magnetic attraction to the 22-yards, the pitches will behave differently between venues and indeed matches at the same arena, bowlers will find themselves treated with less disdain, and the Impact batter will find himself back to fighting for a place in the XI as one of the designated six.

Cricket and entertainment will once again co-exist and, together, help the sport thrive. The future of cricket has never been safer.

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