March 29, 2010

Aggravated by advertising

Watching the IPL is like encountering one of those post-modern narratives that seeks to satirise consumerism

Tweeting after watching the Indian telecast of the IPL for the first time, cricket's most lovable commentator, David Lloyd, fell foul of Indian fans. He thought it a fantastic tournament, but the coverage "nonsense", "unwatchable", "just ads and daft interviews". Two years ago I would have agreed with Lloyd. By now I've resigned myself to the understanding that there is no separation of the "tournament" and "coverage".

Watching the IPL is like encountering one of those post-modern narratives that seeks to satirise consumerism. Surely, one thinks, this must be a critique of the contemporary world and Lalit Modi not its marketing whiz but its artistic seer.

The player outfits look like a collage of flyers. Excluding the team crest, they wear two logos on the front, two on the "non-leading arm", two on the "leading arm", and a big one at the back. The trousers sport a logo on each leg. The helmets and caps have one at the rear and another on the side. The umpires are similarly draped, though they haven't such a variety.

The beautiful baize of the field is defaced by anywhere between five and eight giant logos, one or two on the straights, and the remaining square. Inside the advertising boundary boards, the boundary triangles carry branding. So do the sightscreens; so do the stumps. The fibreglass of the dugouts is tattooed in logos. There is a blimp in the sky. A giant screen constantly fizzes with advertisements. The banners in the crowd can be sponsored ("Cheer your Citi").

Watching on the telly one sometimes loses a horizontal quarter to ads, sometimes a vertical quarter, sometimes both together. Along the bottom, there are text promos the whole while.

As many viewers have noted with horror, this season features ads between not just overs but between deliveries, cunningly zooming in and out of the giant screen sometimes. Besides, there are two "strategic time-outs". These provide 10 minutes of pure, cricket-free ads. These have been sold to Maxx Mobile: perhaps the first instance, as somebody said, of a sponsored ad-break.

Meanwhile the commentators shout. The shouting is to add excitement, and to build up a necessary momentum for the commercial bombardment. To the existing DLF Maximum and Citi Moment of Success has been added the Karbonn Kamaal Catch. No amount of repetition inures one to this surreal appropriation. At any rate, the Maximum, you sense, has been named with a far-sighted elasticity: it is only a matter of time, sixes flowing like water, that an eight or a 10 is introduced.

The celebrities who watch from the stands have been usually bussed in or have paid heftily to wear the jersey and wave the flag. Some have no interest in cricket. When Jack Nicholson watches the Lakers he does it because he loves basketball. He buys his tickets. And celebrities are present at the IPL after-match parties. Tickets are sold for the parties: they cost more than the match tickets.

A minority will grumble but India can accept the IPL the way it is because it is not a playing society. Its relationship with sport is not of participant but consumer. It holds nothing sacred. The IPL knows that it competes not against sport but general entertainment

The other day I stared at the screen in disbelief on seeing the "meet a cheerleader" promo (an SMS contest, I think: Rs 3 an SMS, as well as a chatline, Rs 10 a call), leaving no doubt as to what the IPL thinks of them. They are not, as in American varsities, a homegrown support and performance troupe whose athletic prowess matches those of the players, but dancing girls who add a bit of titillation and colour (preferably white, as two sacked black cheerleaders found out in season one).

To switch sports while the IPL beams is to find a sanctuary in the middle of a mall. In the Champions League, the footballers move about in logoed but elegant jerseys on a field of unblemished grass, unbranded goalposts and boundaries. Same in the ATP Masters: the tennis players are beholden only to their apparel sponsor, whose branding is subtle, and the court is clean. Neither sport has stooped to restructuring itself to add more commercial breaks. Their commentators are not pushing products; they are empowered to critique.

You think that all of this is important in sport - the idea of an aesthetically pleasing area, of a reliable structure, removing one temporarily from the haggles of the daily world. You think, briefly, that the IPL does not need to go so far down the road that it has. They could just as easily shave off a couple of hundred million dollars from their billion dollars-plus television rights sale, and build in clauses to safeguard the viewing experience. But this is to misunderstand the IPL.

The highest possible figure is important because in India money is exciting and a truth. It is the parameter to judge a profession, a work of art, a life. To be able to say "billion dollars" matters. It empowers and it attracts power. And as symbolism the IPL deals and public auctions are scarcely different from Mayawati's garland of rupees that middle-class Indians find so repulsive.

A minority will grumble but India can accept the IPL the way it is because it is not a playing society. Its relationship with sport is not of participant but consumer. It holds nothing sacred. The IPL knows that it competes not against sport but general entertainment. "Saas-bahu se better hai," [It's better than family-drama soaps] a viewer remarks. And to compete with saas-bahu one must make concessions. Do not give them a moment to linger; cut to Deepika Padukone, a cheerleader's thigh, a 30-second dugout interview.

I appreciate that the IPL did not invent advertising in cricket, merely took a leap further towards the logical end. That we are still not at the end is the truly frightening thought.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly column for Mint Lounge

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