Are cricket fans turning their backs on the ongoing fifth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s showcase fast cricket contest?
If TV ratings figures are to be believed, fans have had enough of cricket despite the nine-team, 76-match, seven-week Twenty20 tourney.
Viewer ratings were down 18.7% in the first six games – a time when interest in the tournament traditionally peaks – compared with the same period last year.
That’s not all. Season V began on a wrong note with a tawdry Bollywood song-and-dance opening show which even appears to have put off fans. Two top sponsors have withdrawn. Brand and communication consultants are warning that the IPL brand is in “choppy waters”, and the league needs a “stronger game plan to rejuvenate the brand”. One brand consultancy firm has downgraded the league’s value to $3.67bn, down 11% from 2010.
Remember, the response to IPL Season IV last year was lukewarm. TV ratings dropped by 29% and even the final met a tepid response. Cricket fans were savouring India’s spectacular win in the World Cup which preceded the tournament, and had little appetite for more cricket.
Why is the thrill gone this year – at least in the early stages of the tournament? After all, this is the tournament which combines the sublime (sledgehammer batting, close finishes) and the ridiculous (Bollywood entertainment, cheerleaders, “strategic time outs” in the middle of the games to facilitate advertising breaks). Indians love tamasha(entertainment), and the IPL is still the best tamasha on offer.
For one, after the song and dances are over, it’s finally all about cricket. India is still licking its wounds after a nightmarish international season in which it lost eight overseas Test matches on the trot – its worst run since the 1960s. Though Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th international hundred in Dhaka last month was a welcome diversion, India failed to pick up the Asia Cup. Don’t disrespect the fan, Rahul Dravid eloquently said at last year’s Bradman Oration, and to expect fans to flock to cheer non-performing cricketers at the highest level is a bit fey.
Also, Indian stars are the league’s biggest draw, and most of them have been performing indifferently or are absent in the ongoing edition. Tendulkar is hurt after the first game, and Sehwag and Dhoni, two big hitters, haven’t fired yet. VVS Laxman isn’t playing this season. Yuvraj Singh is recovering from cancer and is out of the game for a while. Saurav Ganguly’s batting is past its sell-by date. Rahul Dravid is playing a post-retirement nostalgia gig. Yusuf Pathan, a Twenty20 star, has fizzled out. When the stars are largely down and out, fans stay away.
Fans also seem to be confused about whom to support. The IPL is a city-based league aiming to build up fan bases in half-a-dozen big Indian cities. But when Calcutta’s icon Saurav Ganguly, Delhi’s favourite Gautam Gambhir and Bangalore’s biggest star Rahul Dravid end up leading the teams of Pune, Calcutta and Rajasthan, fan loyalties to home teams can begin to fray easily.
Interest will possibly pick up during the knockouts and the final at the fag end of the league. It may even pick up with more high-scoring games, edge-of-the-seat finishes, and big-bang batting by the stars.
But authorities simply cannot afford to let the IPL crash.
Listen to Sharda Ugra, India’s top cricket writer, and you know why. “The IPL has now become a key component of world cricket’s economy,” she writes. “If it falters and fails because it is not alert to the audience climate around it, the domino effect around the cricket world will be damaging. Cricket’s superstar status in many parts of its empire will be downgraded from club class to cattle class – all holy cows included.”
(This article was first published in BBC)