How do you build a brand, a franchise with overpowering salience? How do you innovate and provide breakthrough benefit in a vastly cluttered media landscape? You obviously need something that gets you stickiness, recall and subconscious embed. Circa 2008 will be remembered for an amazing killer application, something that redefined frontiers in brand and franchise elasticity, a new performing flea in an age of whirligigs. Yes, I am talking about the Indian Premier League (IPL), which redefined and re-established cricket with an unprecedented fan following.
India is the epicentre of global cricket and abounds with savants, but despite all this, IPL was truly transformational. We need to understand that the colossal success of the T20 World Cup in South Africa and the fact that India emerged triumphant helped in this metamorphosis. But even then, the success of IPL goes beyond this. Lalit Modi’s comprehension of the mechanics of cricket deals probably makes him one of the most shrewd operators in the game today.
So, what helped in this amazing and stunning success story? For this I decided to speak to Lalit Modi, the man who needs to be described as the change agent in this regard. One needs to understand Modi’s psyche. Brash and unabashedly ambitious, his business background helped him in seeking a convergence between commerce and sport. His role in bringing ESPN into India as far back as 1994 gave him the bedrock of experience to explore this domain effectively. In many ways, the combine of Jagmohan Dalmiya and Inderjit Singh Bindra realised the power of this game several moons ago. Against the backdrop of the 1983 World Cup success, they used myriad strategies and tactics to bridge the brown-white divide in world cricket.
For someone like Modi, with his unconventional thinking, the foundation provided by Dalmiya, Bindra and lately Sharad Pawar in the BCCI, was a perfect breeding ground. By his own admission, it took him 14 years to create the IPL franchise. Modi started ideating on a world class league, transposing the learnings from the NBA, NFL, English Premier League. His education at Duke’s University and the fact that he was a scion of a prominent business family obviously helped him put the tentpoles together.
The Cassandras, myself included, never thought that the IPL would work in the extreme heat of May and June. But I guess, Brendon McCullum’s blinder at the very outset set the tone and tenor of this fascinating success story. The novelty of bidding for players in a transparent manner, an amalgam of industrial houses, movie stars, media houses purchasing teams created hype and hoopla. The fact that big ticket names came to be associated with the IPL before a single ball was bowled acted as a catalyst – Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries, Vijay Mallya’s United Breweries, N Srinivasan’s India Cements, Shah Rukh Khan/ Juhi Chawla, Ness Wadia/ Priety Zinta/ Karan Paul/ Mohit Burman, Deccan Chronicle, infrastructure player GMR and Lachlan Murdoch partnered Emerging Media. It was an interesting pot pourri.
Somewhere in this journey, one mustn’t forget the role played by Zee TV supremo Subhash Chandra. Though Modi will outright reject the call that the IPL was constructed by the BCCI as a riposte to the rebel ICL, Chandra did dare to take on the ruling cricket establishment. He threw money, roped in ageing international stars and tyros from the domestic circuit to stitch up a league despite the opposition of the BCCI. I asked Modi the other day on what he thought of what he had managed to put together. Pat came his answer, “The inaugural season of the DLF Indian Premier League was a huge learning for the BCCI and myself. For starters, it helped prove that India can sustain a franchisee based model in sports, and quite profitably I might add. But perhaps more important was the fact that we were able to help create a model that will help grow the game at the grassroots level and significantly enhance the infrastructure across India through private participation. That aside, drawing in the crowds through a judicious mix of world-class action on the greens and entertainment were critical elements in the success of the IPL.”
Modi’s plan to set up a global league has paid in spades. Now with action shifting to Season 2, he has thought up new innovations like trading of players and a fresh player auction on February 6, 2009. But why was Modi so convinced that something like this would work? After all, wasn’t there a surfeit of cricket? Modi says, “I was always convinced that we were on the threshold of a bold new cricketing era with the advent of the Indian Premier League. My conviction was based on the fact that we had done our homework well, researching all the best sporting leagues around the world and then finally adopting a hybrid, which would work best in the Indian context. But I should also add that the global response to the competition has been simply unbelievable, to say the least.”
The success of this event as a televised spectacle can be gleaned from the fact that SET Max’s revenue marketshare rose from a pre-IPL level of 5.7 per cent to 28.8 per cent. Its share of prime time during the inaugural season of the IPL also went up to 29 per cent, higher than the cumulative market share of the top nine Hindi entertainment channels. SET Max’s old strategy to provide a plank of ‘cricentertainment’ worked like a charm. Tournament revenues were Rs 305 crore. Modi says that revenues for the Indian Premier League add up to over $2.5 billion, but that is over a period of time. These revenue streams include TV broadcast rights and various sponsorship deals. He says, “I am happy to state that the BCCI has already repatriated part of these revenues to the various state associations and the other part has gone into refurbishment of our cricketing infrastructure and stadia prior to the 2011 World Cup.”
What makes Modi the most feared man in the world of sport today is his ability to do mega deals with panache and elan. Understanding the economics of the cricket market, he has done landmark deals – IPL media rights were sold for 10 years to Sony for $1.26 billion, IPL teams’ sale brought in $723.6 million, IPL title sponsorship and ground sponsors brought in $220 million, and the mother of all deals – selling the T20 Champions League media rights to ESPN-STAR Sports for $975 million. And I am not even discussing the other deals that he did as a BCCI functionary, because they are small change in comparison. His rivals hate his guts, but many in the know acknowledge that he is the power behind the Sharad Pawar throne. Over to Season 2 of IPL.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist who started his career with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi - with The Indian Express, Illustrated Weekly, Sunday Observer, Dalal Street Journal, Plus Channel where he ran India's first morning business show on Doordarshan, The Times of India Group, Business India, Hindustan Times and Reliance Big Entertainment. Starting his career as a cricket writer, he graduated to becoming a man for all seasons under Pritish Nandy, who he considers as the premier influence on his career. Since he studied economics at Calcutta University, Bamzai decided in 1993 to branch out into business and financial journalism. Familiar with all three media, he is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.)