It is one of South Asia’s sporting rituals: the star-studded opening night of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the high-octane, fast and furious cricket tournament that has built a fan base of hundreds of millions in only four years.
The IPL’s latest season started on Tuesday night with a multimillion-dollar show featuring US singer Katy Perry and leading Indian stars, including actor Amitabh Bachchan.
The opening game, to be played in the southern city of Chennai, pits local team and defending champions Chennai Super Kings against the Mumbai Indians, whose lineup includes Sachin Tendulkar, the world’s best batsman and India’s most popular sportsman.
The tournament is estimated to be worth between US$4 billion and US$6.5 billion, but faces big challenges. As Indian economic growth slows and the novelty of the IPL’s Twenty20 format wears off, what once appeared a magic formula for making huge sums of money is looking shakier.
Last year, viewers dropped by a third. The biggest sign of trouble comes from Bollywood. Dozens of releases are scheduled for the coming weeks. Big studios used to avoid any clash.
“There’s much less buzz this year. There’s a sense that people for the first time are beginning to think that the whole thing is more like a reality show than a serious sports tournament. That could be really damaging,” said Pradeep Magazine, one of India’s most respected sports writers.
“All doubts will be put to rest,” Rajiv Shukla, a government minister and chairman of the IPL, told the Times of India. “The excitement is building up nicely.”
The IPL was launched in 2008 by the flamboyant sports entrepreneur Lalit Modi. From the start, there were allegations of unethical behavior, tax evasion and corruption.
Controversial and abrasive, Modi was forced out following bitter infighting among India’s cricketing authorities — his successors have struggled to match his brand of brassy showmanship.
“It’s no fun now,” said Ajit Singh, a 33-year-old taxi driver in south Delhi. “I might watch it on the television if I have time, but I’m not going to any of the matches.”
There are also concerns that organized crime might attempt to fix games as a series of corruption scandals have hit South Asia cricket in recent years.