Warning Signs for the IPL

Jon GemmellCorrespondent IMarch 30, 2009

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 24:  IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi (R) and Cricket South Africa CEO Gerald Majola attend a press conference at the Wanderers Gymnasium on March 24, 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa. IPL chief Lalit Modi today announced that the IPL Twenty20 2009 tournament will be held in South Africa from April 18.  (Photo by Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

You have to wonder what lessons the English Cricket Board took from the Stanford debacle. It seemed obvious to most observers that a short-sighted lust for the dollar superseded any long-term consequences of joining forces with an entrepreneur more akin to Arthur Daly than John Paul Getty.

Yet when the Indian Premier League dangled the bait of playing in England to whip the South African authorities into action, the ECB came running to lie once again at the foot of mammon.

It would have been an act of lunacy to stage the IPL in a country that can still expect snow and hail to greet the start of its season. It would have been an act of recklessness on the part of the ECB to pit its fiercest rival against the English domestic season.

With England players rested and the best overseas stars in the IPL, you are struggling to sell the County Championship and the 50-overs competition at the best of times.

Now in its tricky second season, the IPL will be played in South Africa. The Twenty20 tournament is billed as the biggest spectacle in world cricket, and critics are concerned that it could develop to rival the international game. Its future is certainly demanding more column inches in the Indian media than the national side’s current tour of New Zealand.

But what is the IPL’s future?

Cricket has been brought to a standstill in Pakistan and the terrorist threat in India is such that the tournament has been moved to South Africa on the grounds that the government cannot spare anti-terror forces during election times.

When you consider that the actual polling and counting of votes lasts fewer than three days whilst the IPL is spread over six weeks, you have to ask if there is more to this.

If the Indian Board (BCCI) has taken this step out of frustration of not getting their own way in negotiations with the government—and the BCCI is not used to people standing up to it—it may prove foolhardy.

The IPL franchises were purchased for millions as a means to provide playthings for India’s new elite and for the hope of further fame and fortune. Investors were warned to be patient and that the profits would flow after a few years. Last year the average loss per franchise was £4 million.

Still, there are very lucrative deals in place with the television companies and advertisers. In addition, the franchises get to keep most of the attendance revenues once they have paid for the cost of staging the match and provided the BCCI with their cut.

Here lies the problem with moving the whole enterprise to another country. Will the crowds turn up? After all, they are not going to see local teams who have their roots in the community.

Indeed, the franchises are not teams in the normal sense at all. The commentator Harsha Bhogle speaks of the enthusiasm and the energy of the filled stadiums last season. Without this, will the matches still provide the spectacle?

There is the obvious threat to crowd revenue, but if this affects TV audiences what about advertising? Already BIG TV has withdrawn from a sponsorship deal worth £25 million and Pepsi has re-negotiated their contract. The IPL is not immune from the world economic crisis.

The gamble to stage the IPL overseas also undermines the image of India as a young, modern, and confident state. Maybe it helped people forget about the threat of terrorism, economic depression, and the appalling poverty. The decision to move the tournament, however, during an election, will bring these issues to the fore.

If that is the case then the IPL will have serviced interests outside of its own bubble after all.