Four years on, lustre fades from Indian cricket league

MUMBAI, (Reuters) – For a show it was hard to beat: A  DJ blasted Bollywood songs, fans decked out in the colours 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.
But just as local hero Sachin Tendulkar struggled with his  cricket on the field, India’s glamour-packed cricket league 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 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,” Singh said.
An April study by UK-based Brand Finance figures the IPL  brand is worth $3.67 billion, a drop of 11 percent from a year  ago but still above an estimated $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 40-45 percent from  last year, a report by Kotak Institutional Equities found.
The cost of franchises has soared. Two teams paid a combined  $703 million to begin play this season — far more than the  roughly $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  180 kilometers from Nashik 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  revolutionised 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 centre 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.
Shashi Tharoor, an author who was one of India’s  highest-profile officials, was forced to resign as a junior  minister last year after Modi accused him of using political  muscle to influence team bids.
Now based in London, Modi was unwilling to return to India  because he feared for his life, his lawyer was quoted as saying  in October. Accused of financial irregularities, Modi has denied  any wrongdoing.
A chaotic offseason saw the BCCI terminate the contracts of  two teams — Kings XI Punjab and Rajasthan Royals over ownership  questions — only to see them win reprieves by court order.

IPL Chief Executive Sundar Raman said some teams are run  better than others, and that factors including location and the  stature of a team’s stars help determine success.
“If you have a Sachin Tendulkar in your team, or if Shah  Rukh Khan owns your team, you will expect a larger following or  a greater appeal,” Raman told Reuters.
Part of the challenge is having access to those star players  beyond the short season. Top three finishers compete in the  Champions League later in the year, but teams have limited claim  on players with heavy commitments in a crowded calendar.
“The difficulty is that this is a six-week tournament but we  have to keep our brand alive for the rest of the year,” said  Amrit Mathur, chief executive of the Delhi Daredevils.
“At some point we have to have a conversation with the BCCI  on availability of players and the kind of activities we can do  all year around,” he said.
The movement of several star players in the league auction  alienated some fans. World Cup hero Yuvraj Singh, a native of  the northern state of Punjab, was not retained by his home team  and now captains first timers Pune Warriors.
“The novelty has worn off, and there is sameness to the  games,” said cricket writer Pradeep Magazine, a consulting  sports editor with The Hindustan Times.
The World Cup ended a week before the IPL season began, and  India heads for a tour of the West Indies days after the season  finishes, meaning franchises are not just competing for access  to players, but also for advertisers.
Japan’s Yamaha Motor Co , a first-time  advertiser this year through its sponsorship of the  Hyderabad-based Deccan Chargers, has not yet decided whether it  will be back next year.
“It all depends. There are many (India) series in between  this and next year’s IPL and we will have to re-evaluate and see  which is better — IPL or maybe a series,” Roy Kurian ,   who heads Yamaha’s business in India, told Reuters.
“When you have country matches, like India versus  Australia or Sri Lanka, obviously, people will watch those more  than a local IPL match,” he said.
The 10 teams earn revenue from broadcasting rights, IPL  sponsorships, team sponsorships, merchandise and gate receipts.
That may not be enough in a short, tightly-packed season.
Indiawin Sports, the subsidiary of Ambani’s Reliance  Industries that owns the Mumbai Indians, seen as one  of the best-run teams, lost 154 million rupees ($3.4 million) on  sales of 1.13 billion rupees in the financial year that ended in  March, the conglomerate’s annual report said.
According to Brand Finance, the Mumbai Indians — which  retained its core stars from its previous three seasons —  Chennai Super Kings, and Mallya’s Royal Challengers Bangalore  have done best at building their brands.
On a recent night in Mumbai, the loyalties of the home crowd  appeared to be diluted — for better or worse.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing can compare to the high we got  when India won the World Cup — not even if Mumbai Indians win  the IPL,” said Mahesh Shinde, who along with his wife and 14  friends wore t-shirts that spelled out Sachin Tendulkar.

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