September 5, 2010

Under the shadow of the IPL

The Champions League already has better cricket to offer than its Indian sibling. And this year it hopes to replicate the audiences of the IPL as well

Andrew Symonds is probably the last cricketer on earth you would expect to see playing with a rubber duck in the bath. Yet there he is up to his neck in soap suds, a shower cap shielding his dome, cradling, yes, a little yellow rubber duck. What's more, he isn't alone. Sitting below the tub is Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, doing what any one of us would do in that situation - making fun of Symonds.

Of course Bachchan and Symonds don't hang out in the same social circles. The scene is from one of a handful of commercials shot with Bachchan, the Champions League Twenty20's brand ambassador, whose purpose is to generate buzz ahead of the tournament that starts on September 10 in South Africa.

The Champions League Twenty20 offers arguably the highest-quality 20-over cricket outside the international arena. From Sachin Tendulkar to Kieron Pollard to David Warner, it packs quite a punch into 16 days of cricket. Yet three years since it was announced, the tournament is still trying to emerge from under the long shadow cast by the Indian Premier League, its resoundingly successful sibling.

This year's competition takes on an even bigger significance because it will be the first multi-nation tournament to be held following the News of the World sting operation that led to the ICC's investigation of three Pakistan cricketers for spot-fixing. A good, clean tournament would go a long way to cementing its place in the cricketing universe.

The IPL and the Champions League Twenty20 were created together in 2007, and originally envisioned as two parts of the same whole. The former's six-week Indian extravaganza would be capped by the top Twenty20 domestic sides taking on each other to crown the best team in the world, not unlike the Champions League in football.

Both events generated huge interest from broadcasters. Sony paid $1.8 billion for the rights to the IPL, while ESPN Start Sports (ESS) spent nearly $1 billion for the Champions League Twenty20. There the similarities end. The IPL's mix of cricket, Bollywood and cheerleaders drew full houses and attracted 102 million Indian television viewers in its first season. In contrast, the Champions League Twenty20 did not get off the ground in 2008: it was cancelled following the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November that year.

When the tournament did make its belated debut as a 12-team event in 2009, it was hurt by a more nagging problem - fans in India, cricket's largest market, showed little interest in non-IPL teams despite some exciting cricket from the likes of Trinidad & Tobago, who upset a few of the more fancied teams to reach the final.

T&T's Pollard announced his arrival on the global stage with a violent 18-ball 54 in a league match against eventual champions New South Wales. His performances led to an IPL contract with the Mumbai Indians, but they failed to generate ratings. The three IPL teams in the mix - Delhi Daredevils, Royal Challengers Bangalore and 2009 IPL champions Deccan Chargers - were knocked out in the group stage.

When those three teams left, they took the majority of television viewers with them. The 2009 IPL saw an average television ratings point (TRP) of 4.1, according to TAM Media Research, a television ratings agency, compared to an average TRP of 1.16 for the 2009 Champions League Twenty20 (one TRP represents 1% of viewers in the surveyed area in a given minute).

The contrast in ratings led, perhaps inevitably, to comparisons between the two events, comparisons Manu Sawhney, managing director of ESS, believes are incorrect because the IPL's immediate success has skewed expectations. "It does take time to build a tournament," he told ESPNcricinfo. "The IPL is an aberration."

The 2009 IPL saw an average TRP of 4.1, according to TAM Media Research, a television ratings agency, compared to an average TRP of 1.16 for the 2009 Champions League Twenty20 (one TRP represents 1% of viewers in the surveyed area in a given minute)

The IPL's biggest advantage is that not only is it a made-in-India tournament, but it is made for India. It guarantees Indian teams fighting it out until the bitter end and features the same teams each year. Meanwhile the Champions League Twenty20 features a constantly changing mix of teams: only three of the sides that made it last year are back this year.

"The larger challenge for us is the familiarity with the teams," Champions League Twenty20 chief executive Sundar Raman said. "Unlike IPL, [where] geographic location/ownership sets the fan base. Here it will only be the quality of the sport and the stature of the players."

That said, Raman thinks it is only natural for fans to take some time to become familiar with teams from other countries, and is confident the tournament will eventually become "one of the premier domestic competitions in world sport".

To help overcome the lack of team recognition, the Champions League Twenty20 is being aggressively promoted by ESS, hence the signing of Bachchan as the event's brand ambassador and a string of ads featuring the actor and three players - Sourav Ganguly, Herschelle Gibbs and Symonds. The three IPL teams that qualified - Chennai Super Kings, 2010 champions, Bangalore and Mumbai Indians - are running their own marketing campaigns to drum up excitement among their fans as well. Yet some doubt this will be enough.

SRIDHAR RAMANUJAM IS THE HEAD OF BRAND-COMM, a leading Indian brand consultancy and public relations firm, and an avid cricket fan. He believes that Indian fans only care about Indian teams and have little understanding of, or appreciation for, teams outside India. He thinks the format would work if the audience was global but the tournament, which is already missing teams from England, will be telecast during the night in Australia. That leaves India, Sri Lanka and South Africa as the main markets.

"The Indian audience is going to be fractured," he said, "not the same level of interest as the IPL. It is has been marketed very aggressively with Amitabh Bachchan trying to create hype. Whether it will deliver is a big question mark."

Another problem for the tournament has been finding a slot in a crowded cricket calendar. The IPL found a place for itself during cricket's traditional off-season and the new ICC vice-president, Alan Isaac, has said he is in favour of creating a window for the league. The Champions League Twenty20 hasn't had such good fortune.

"Finding a time in the jigsaw that's suitable for all nations is one of our most significant challenges," Raman said. "And as we have seen this year, English teams are unfortunately unavailable due to the completion of their domestic season."

Raman, though, is confident the tournament will be better received this time around. He would prefer to take the event to different countries each year, but is constrained by the need to satisfy the Indian market.

"The commercial realities of cricket mean the tournament needs to be played at times that are largely compatible to the subcontinent. As we saw with the 2009 IPL, South Africa fits the bill perfectly, and is one reason why I'm sure this year's tournament will be a success."

Where the Champions League Twenty20 does score over the IPL is in the quality of its cricket and the uniqueness of its format. Even the teams that are thought of as underdogs, such as Sri Lanka champions Wayamba, are full of internationals.

"The appeal of the Champions League Twenty20 is that it is the only international event for domestic franchises and features not only current internationals but many of those who will become the next tier of internationals," said Gerald Majola, the chief executive of Cricket South Africa. "It is a genuine proving ground both for the domestic standard in the various countries and for the emerging stars of the game." Majola's assessment is backed up by the players, who appreciate the strong test of cricket the tournament provides.

"When I was a child, I always said I wanted to play against the strongest teams," South African fast bowler Dale Steyn, who plays for the Royal Challengers Bangalore, said. "And I always thought that was international cricket. You are playing against some international sides at domestic level [in the Champions League Twenty20]. That's fantastic."

Wayamba opening batsman, and former Sri Lankan captain, Mahela Jayawardene echoed Steyn in his appreciation for the event. "It is something totally different from what we play with the national team, and even with the IPL. So I can see it going forward a long way, and as long as cricketers enjoy it and express themselves, it will definitely be something big."

This year the 10 best Twenty20 teams from six countries will compete for the $2.5 million first prize. Two groups of five teams each will compete in a round-robin format, and the top two sides from each group will go through to the semi-finals. The format is different from last year, which had two group stages. The new set-up should ensure the IPL teams last longer, keeping Indian fans around longer too.

The Twenty20 revolution in India was kick-started by India's win in the 2007 ICC World Twenty20. That victory led to a massive gathering in Mumbai to welcome India's conquering heroes, and led to the creation of the IPL and the Champions League Twenty20. If an IPL team were to win the Champions League Twenty20, it could be the boost the tournament needs to come out of the IPL's shadow and into the light.

"The key thing would depend on the performances of a few key players," Sridhar said. "A few tight games and two Indian teams making it to the final. That is the ideal scenario."

Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo