Fri, May 20, 2011 - Page 19 News List

FEATURE: Four years on, luster fades from Indian league

Reuters, MUMBAI, INDIA

For a show it was hard to beat: A DJ blasted Bollywood songs, fans decked out in the colors of the home side danced in the aisles and the wife of the billionaire team owner perched on an electric-blue sofa near the Mumbai Indians’ dugout.

However, just as local hero Sachin Tendulkar struggled with his cricket on the field, the glamor-packed Indian Premier League (IPL) is having difficulty sustaining momentum four years after it burst forth with a TV-friendly format, cheerleaders and big salaries.

A series of scandals has tarnished the league’s image, teams are losing money as player costs escalate, TV ratings are down and franchise owners are still figuring out how to make the most of their investments from a season lasting less than two months.

“We haven’t broken even yet. We’re hoping we’ll get there this year, but the last three years have been difficult for us,” said Arvinder Singh, chief operating officer of the Kings XI Punjab, a team co-owned by Bollywood actress Preity Zinta. “Sports franchises in the EPL [English Premier League] and NBA build a year-round connect with their fans. Also, merchandising is a huge part of their business, but in India, it’s yet to take off.”

A study last month by UK-based Brand Finance figures the IPL brand is worth US$3.67 billion, a drop of 11 percent from a year ago, but still above an estimated US$2 billion in 2009.

Average TV ratings for the first 49 matches of the season were down more than 25 percent from the same point last year to their lowest level in the IPL’s four-year history, according to viewership analysis firm TAM Sports.

That may be the result of cricket fatigue following India’s World Cup win on home soil, but it’s bad news for teams looking to build year-round buzz, as well as for ad sales for next year.

At the same time, player salaries are up 40 percent 45 percent from last year, a report by Kotak Institutional Equities found.

The cost of franchises has soared. Two teams paid a combined US$703 million to begin play this season — far more than the roughly US$90 million paid on average by the eight original sides.

IPL teams face the challenge of building brands and loyalty among fans obsessed with the national side and its stars, to the extent that opposing fans often root for the likes of Tendulkar and India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni against their own team.

“I’ve come because I want to see Sachin Tendulkar batting. If he wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have come all the way,” said Vaishali Ranadive, who was wearing a Tendulkar T-shirt and drove 180km from Nashik, India, with her husband and two children to see the Mumbai Indians and their hometown star.

Under the leadership of former chairman Lalit Modi, the IPL revolutionized the game as “cricketainment,” with its short Twenty20 format, player auctions, post-game parties and heavy advertising, dazzling fans and offending purists. Celebrity owners are part of the show and include Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, as well as spirits and airline magnate Vijay Mallya and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

The IPL’s rise underscored the emergence of a brash, youthful India as a player on the global stage. At the same time, it became symptomatic of a darker side of India and the confluence of money and politics, erupting in scandal last year.

Hailed as a gamechanger who helped make India the center of the global cricket economy, Modi was accused of mismanagement and ousted from his position last year by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which owns the league.

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