IPL can ill-afford another poor season

Not interesting anymore? A near-empty Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi for the match between Kochi Tuskers Kerala and Delhi Daredevils during the fourth season of the Indian Premier League.-H. VIBHU Not interesting anymore? A near-empty Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi for the match between Kochi Tuskers Kerala and Delhi Daredevils during the fourth season of the Indian Premier League.

Last year, the Indian Premier League, in its fourth season, encountered from a hitherto enthralled consumer the first signs of apathy. Where nary an empty seat could previously be noticed, large sections of stadiums went unoccupied. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

In its heyday in the 1920s and 30s, Atlantic City was a raging tourist attraction on America's eastern seaboard. Originally marketed as a seaside health resort, it evolved gloriously towards the turn of the century, into what a piece of advertising literature in 1922 called “a beautiful panorama of supreme enjoyment and recreation.” Hotel upon posh hotel lined its feted boardwalk. Tourists, gangsters, politicians and celebrities descended on the place in numbers.

“The life, the light, and the colour that one sees on this promenade during the early evening hours are indescribable,” the National City Publicity Company boasted in that tourist booklet. “Extending seaward from the boardwalk are six ocean piers — in all the world the greatest series of piers devoted to pleasure.” 20 million visitors arrived each year, it exulted, “to take the fullest enjoyment out of life in ‘The Playground of the World'”.

The parallels may not seem perfect, but the IPL, once India's most ‘happening' sporting event, finds itself at a similar sort of crossroads that Atlantic City did at the end of World War II.

In the latter's case, hotel occupancies began dipping, in the first signs that interest — at least temporarily — was flagging. The Indian Premier League, in its fourth season, encountered from a hitherto enthralled consumer the first signs of apathy. Where nary an empty seat could previously be noticed, large sections of stadiums went unoccupied.

Royal Challengers Bangalore's Virat Kohli in action, watched by Chennai Super Kings' Mahendra Singh Dhoni in IPL-IV."The IPL schedule was tough as it came just after the World Cup. The whole of India wanted the country to win the World Cup and we did. The fans were a bit emotionally drained to come out in large numbers initially in the IPL. But they later came out to watch.” said Dhoni. Virat Kohli too admitted, in the opening days of the competition, to feeling ood about going up against team-mates he had just lifted the World Cup with.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

TRPs — from a reported average of 5.29 in the preceding season — fell to 3.94. Its brand value, Brand Finance said, had gone from $4.13 billion to $3.67 billion. Perhaps the defining parameter was the least tangible one: the ‘buzz', that everyone admitted, was missing.

This was attributed to the surfeit of cricket on TV — a month and a half of the World Cup had only just elapsed. It had also to do, perhaps, with how indecently little time (five days) the Indian viewer was given to wallow in — and recover from — the high of a World Cup win. Then there was the format of the IPL itself — 74 matches spread over 51 days, with not all of them meaningful or engrossing. The addition of two teams meant a dilution in overall quality was inevitable. Any team loyalties among audiences — never an easy thing to earn — mostly had to be gained afresh after the auction and the reshuffle. In the memory also lurked the other shenanigans — Lalit Modi, Shashi Tharoor and the expulsions of two teams. Interest may have picked up closer to the final, but that the tournament was underwhelming was undeniable.

“The IPL schedule was tough as it came just after the World Cup,” Chennai Super Kings' skipper M. S. Dhoni conceded after winning the final. “The whole of India wanted the country to win the World Cup and we did. The fans were a bit emotionally drained to come out in large numbers initially in the IPL. But they later came out to watch.”

Virat Kohli too admitted, in the opening days of the competition, to feeling odd about going up against team-mates he had just lifted the World Cup with.

Was the fourth edition of the IPL, then, a mere blip or an unmistakable point on the downward trajectory? “I definitely feel there will be a decline in viewership (of IPL-V),” says Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, Brand-Comm. “There is a limit to how much cricket I can watch, and if I'm a genuine lover of the sport, there is cricket everywhere till the IPL comes around. If I'm going to watch 15 ODIs (Australia tri-series) now, I'm not exactly going to be starved of cricket. There will be an audience but the core audience is moving away. The avid cricket fan is watching less and less IPL.”

T20 is a family sport; it is different from Test cricket. The IPL draws women and children too. Even TRPs of 5 are enough to sustain it. Of course the excitement from the first season has fallen — that was bound to happen — so now it's more about constructing a following around the team. Last year, unfortunately, there was an overdose of cricket (although the turnout at the Chinnaswamy Stadium was good). The sponsors have opened their eyes to this now. Things have to take a new turn; we'll see what happens. -- Former cricketer Vijay Bharadwaj.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The fifth season has been prefaced by more unsavoury goings-on. The Kochi Tuskers Kerala franchise was dissolved and its players sold. The fate of Sahara Pune Warriors is unclear. But former India cricketer Vijay Bharadwaj, now a member of the KSCA Managing Committee, believes it is too early to ring the death knell. “T20 is a family sport; it is different from Test cricket. The IPL draws women and children too. Even TRPs of 5 are enough to sustain it.”

Sridhar agrees that as a format, T20 will endure. “It has drawn a different sort of viewer. But if you're going to play 76 matches, a lot of them will be ordinary.”

Bharadwaj concedes, however, that the IPL is in need of change. He feels that with the novelty of the concept having worn off, viewership will depend on local fan support teams build — ostensibly the fundamental premise of the IPL. “Of course the excitement from the first season has fallen — that was bound to happen — so now it's more about constructing a following around the team. Last year, unfortunately, there was an overdose of cricket (although the turnout at the Chinnaswamy Stadium was good). The sponsors have opened their eyes to this now. Things have to take a new turn; we'll see what happens.”

Atlantic City did not — for one reason or the other — confront its downturn until it was too late. The ‘Playground of the World' decayed into a miserable mockery of its old self in the 1960s, its giant, empty luxury hotels having to be brought down in controlled implosions. While predicting a similar fate for the world's richest cricket tournament may appear alarmist, it can ill-afford another poor season.

* * * Timeline IPL'S CONTROVERSIES

April 2010: Shashi Tharoor quits as Union Minister after allegations of irregularity in the granting of ‘sweat equity' to Sunanda Pushkar. Lalit Modi accused of graft and dismissed as Chairman of the IPL.

October 2010: Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab franchises terminated for breaking ownership rules. Kochi Tuskers Kerala embroiled in ownership dispute — BCCI issues show-cause notice seeking termination.

December 2010: Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab reinstated, Kochi Tuskers Kerala also inducted.

September 2011: Kochi Tuskers Kerala franchise terminated for breaching terms of agreement.

February 2012: Sahara Pune Warriors stays away from auction, participation in IPL-V uncertain.